KNOW THE SCORE: Schoenberg's `Pierrot Lunaire'

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The Independent Culture
1912 in Paris: Igor Stravinsky is working on one mighty example of musical High Modernism, The Rite of Spring - a ritualistic ballet scored for huge symphony orchestra. At the same time in Berlin, and by means of a soprano speaker and just five instruments, Arnold Schoenberg (above) is contributing his own no less radical addition to musical history, in the form of his extraordinary Expressionist song cycle, Pierrot Lunaire.

Equally, it is interesting to compare the respective moods and mindsets of Stravinsky and Schoenberg at this time: Stravinsky, acclaimed, urbane, collaborating in an artistic Mecca with the likes of Diaghilev and Picasso. And Schoenberg, isolated, virtually penniless, his marriage in ruins, his relationship with Richard Strauss terminated, and still mourning the tragic loss of Mahler the previous year. No wonder Schoenberg was on the brink of breakdown, staring into his own existential abyss, and gradually shifting from chromaticism, via atonality, to what, a decade later, would eventually be his twelve-tone system breakthrough.

It was after Mahler's death that Schoenberg moved from Vienna to Berlin. There an old friend sent him a copy of 50 Pierrot Lunaire poems by Albert Giraud. A portrait of the introspective and morbid artist, represented by the figure of the commedia dell'arte clown, immediately appealed to Schoenberg. He chose 21 of Giraud's 13-line rondels, arranging then into three groups of seven. The emotional span of the cycle is extraordinary, moving from darkness to light and back again. At the same time, despite a number of eerie and psychologically probing moments, Schoenberg still regarded the work as essentially "light, ironical and satirical in tone". Indeed, it is: with an eclectic quintet, the composer creates a kaleidoscope of timbres, rounded off perfectly by the declamatory Sprechstimme - half- speech, half-song - of the plaintive soloist

The Scharoun Ensemble's account of Pierrot is given under the young conductor Daniel Harding in this week's late-night Prom. It is also being profitably examined in Battersea Arts Centre's enterprising and innovative fourth Annual Summer Festival of Opera and Music Theatre by the inventive Clod Ensemble.

The Scharoun Ensemble's Prom is at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0171-589 8212) on 26 Aug at 10pm. The Clod Ensemble's staging of Pierrot takes place in Studio II of BAC, Sept 3-6, 8.15pm (7.15pm 6 Sept)