top of page

Schönberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" - Door to 20th. century music

The creation of Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was made possible through the 20. century's first marital scandal among the European crowned families: In 1903 Luise, the Habsburg princess and unhappy wife of the Saxon crown-prince (and later king) Friedrich August escaped to Geneva with the language teacher of her five children (being pregnant with a sixth one). At the Catholic and bigot court divorce was almost impossible and moreover needed the consent of the pope. These difficulties were navigated successfully by a Leipzig lawyer Dr.Felix Zehme, who subsequently became the most famous divorce attorney in Germany and very wealthy. He was a generous patron of the arts and friend of Max Reger. Luise after many other affairs was briefly married to pianist Enrico Toselli (1883-1926) of Serenade fame and died shortly after the second world war in utter poverty.

Dr.Zehme married the talented and successful actress Albertine (1857-1946) who retired from the stage after marriage. Only at a ripe age, she relaunched her career reciting melodramas or also selected poems to Chopin’s music. 1912 she discovered Schönberg (1874-1951) and asked him to compose music for voice and piano to her selection from Albert Giraud’s (1860-1929) cycle of poems “Pierrot Lunaire” (1884) in Otto von Hartleben’s translation (1892). Giraud is counted among the Belgian symbolist poets, but he was also an art critic, political journalist and in later life librarian of the Belgian ministry of the interior. His Pierrot-cycle combines very strict form with an absurdly nightmarish, cruel and sometimes also comic content, an anticipation of expressionism and even surrealism. Pierrot appears many of the poems, sometimes in relation with the moon.

Pierrot in the French-speaking culture of the time related to the famous mute white clown created after 1819 at the Théâtre des Funambules in Paris by Jean-Gaspard Deburau (1796-1846). Born Jan Kašpar Dvořák in Kolín, Bohemia (now Czech Republic), Deburau was the son of a Czech servant, Kateřina Králová (or Catherine Graff), and a native of Amiens Philippe-Germain Deburau, former French soldier turned tightrope walker, who with his several children was running a company of acrobats. He came to Paris and took over the Théâtre des Funambules which was located in a poor suburb and before had run a show “Les chiens savans” where dogs appeared in 18th century costumes.

Because of censure no spoken words were allowed and Deburau’s company only showed acrobatics and pantomime. His son Jean-Gaspard being inept at acrobatics he invented Pierrot and rapidly became very popular. Even after spoken word had been allowed years later Pierrot remained mute. When Deburau had to appear in court because in defence of his wife and children he had killed an attacking drunkard by hitting him on the head with his stick an eager crowd attended with the sole aim to hear him speak. He was acquitted, but since then Pierrot had acquired a uneasily dangerous side to him. Deburau during his whole career only once said two words on stage “mangez salade” (eat salad).

After Deburaus death Paul Legrand (1816-1898) gave the role more sentimental and moving traits. Later on, the role was sucessfully taken over by Jean-Gaspard Deburau’s son Charles (1829-1873) and many other successors and imitators, among them even the divine Sarah Bernhardt who played “Pierrot assassin” in 1883.

Pierrot usually appeared with a few other stereotyped personages from the Commedia dell Arte ,coquettish Colombine, womanizing Harlequin or old avaricious Cassander to the accompaniment of a small musical band. They played rather coarse and juicy sketches, e.g. "Pierrot amoureux, "Pierrot pendu" or "Pierrot somnabule". There were many dozens of these and we know the plots because having to be submitted to the censors they survive in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The props were minimal. Deburau usually played six shows on workdays and nine on Sundays.

The Théâtre des Funambules offering the cheapest seats in Paris it was frequented by the lower classes and the poor, but also by pennyless artists and anybody seeking to escape the bourgeois conventions as represented by the Comédie Française et l’Opéra de Paris. It so happened that Bohemian Deburau’s Pierrot became a crystallisation point of the emerging “Bohemianism” - meaning creative individualism, unorthodox views, (voluntary) poverty. Pierrot remained an inspiration throughout the 19th and 20th century e.g. for the poet Théophile Gautier, the many symbolists, for Claude Debussy, the painters Paul Cézanne, James Ensor, Pablo Picasso or Paul Klee. Even Chaplin noted in his autobiography that his “little tramp” had been conceived as "a sort of Pierrot".

Pierrot is a descendant of Pedrolino who had been brought to France by Italian Commedia dell Arte companies. Also Giraud's Pierrot is “bergamasque” and still longs after the “old Italian comedy”. However the relation of Pierrot to the moon was only invented in the mid-19th century by the symbolists who adored all things white: Swans, lilies, Pierrots and the moon.

Girauds original text in French contains some elements lost in the German translation: E.g. in poem Nr.12 the original French text contains graphic detail, which does not appear in translation, but probably such things can only be said in French without being offensive:


12. La chanson de la potence

La maigre amoureuse au long cou
Sera la dernière maîtresse,
De ce traîne-jambe en détresse,
De ce songe d’or sans le sou.

Adolphe Willette dressed as black Pierrot

Cette pensée est comme un clou
Qu’en sa tête enfonce l’ivresse:
La maigre amoureuse au long cou
Sera la dernière maîtresse.

Elle est svelte comme un bambou;
Sur sa gorge danse comme une tresse,
Et, d’une étranglante caresse,
Le fera jouir comme un fou,
La maigre amoureuse au long cou!

In the French original poem number 19 “Moonfleck” Pierrot ist called “Pierrot Willette” and wears a black coat on which he observes a white spot - rather surprising, because we associate Pierrot with a white cosutme. In fact Adolphe Willette (1857-1926) was a painter rejected by the academic establishment. Being part of the artistic microcosm of the Parisian Montmartre he started to make Pierrot cartoons in the 1880s where Pierrot often wears black. Willette identified himself with Pierrot and had even photographs and portraits of himself in a black Pierrot costume thus becoming the model for Girauds poem.

Following up on Willette one discovers a clue to poem number 8 “Nacht" ("Night": Finstre schwarze Riesenfalter töteten der Sonne Glanz). Willette in 1882 drew a cartoon “Passage of Venus before the Sun” for the periodical “Le Chat Noir”: A naked Venus riding in a chariot drawn by giant winged black beetles obscures the sun while Pierrot remains in the dark surrounded by black cats and showing his empty pockets . Later on Willette elaborated this to a big painting, which might have been intended as a decoration of the Montmartre cabaret “Chat noir” in Paris and is now in the museum Louis Senlecq in L’Isle-Adam in France. For our later generations it is difficult not to feel in this picture, in the poem and in Schönbergs composition a premonition of the decline and fall of the Belle Epoque and of the horrors of the first world war.

Arnold Schönberg had some previous experience as a composer of literary cabaret in the Berliner “Überbrettl”-Theater. He was immediately attracted to these poems and said he would also have composed without being asked. He, however, enlarged the ensemble step by step and his patrons finally had to consent to diverse combinations for five instrumentalists. For her performances, Albertine wore a Colombine costume showing - shockingly - some leg.

Zehme was not a singer, and the voice part is meant and written as “Sprechgesang”, a mixture of speaking and singing, about which Mrs.Zehme had very clear ideas. In her own words: “The singing voice, that supernatural, chastely controlled instrument, ideally beautiful precisely in its ascetic lack of freedom, is not suited to strong eruptions of feeling…. Life cannot be exhausted by the beautiful sound alone. The deepest final happiness, the deepest final sorrow dies away unheard, as a silent scream within our breast, which threatens to fly apart or to erupt like a stream of lava from our lips. …We need both the tones of song as well as those of speech. My unceasing striving in search of the ultimate expressive capabilities for the “artistic experience in tone” has taught me this fact.”

And Schönberg in his preface: “...Difference between singing tone and speaking tone: singing tone unalterably stays on the pitch, whereas speaking tone gives the pitch but immediately leaves it again by falling or rising. However, the performer must be very careful not to adopt a singsong speech pattern. That is not intended at all. Nor should one strive for realistic, natural speech. On the contrary, the difference between ordinary speaking and speaking that contributes to a musical form should become quite obvious. but “it must never be reminiscent of singing.”

In the program notes of the premiere, Schönberg inserted a “Fragment über absolute Poesie” by the German poet Novalis – with a slightly modified text – before Giraud’s poems: "Narratives can be conceived without connections, but with associations, like in a dream – poems that merely sound harmonious and are full of beautiful words, but also without any sense or connection, at most with a few comprehensible strophes, like fragments of the most diversified things. This true poetry can at most have an allegorical meaning on a large scale and an indirect effect.” This quote seems almost an outline of Schönberg’s later music. There is no recording by Zehme, but one by actress and singer Erika Stiedry-Wagner from 1940 directed by Schönberg himself which shows the idea:


Many interpretations by singers in their chastely controlled beauty fall short of the criteria formulated by Zehme and Schönberg. About the relation of the voice to the other instruments in a short YouTube-video the daughter of Schönberg Nuria Schönberg Nono remembers him telling to Erika Stiedry-Wagner: “You must be like one of the instruments of the ensemble, your voice goes in and out between the instruments”. Mrs. Schönberg goes on: “Its not the soloist being accompanied by the instruments. Every instrument is an individual in this and they all interact.”

Schönberg had used “Sprechgesang” already before meeting Zehme, namely in his monumental Gurrelieder (1903-11,, whose first performance in Germany in 1914 was with the participation of Albertine and financed by Dr.Zehme.

Pierrots presence and the novel content of the poems inspired Schönberg, if not yet to twelve-tone technique, so to new freedoms, harmonic, formal and of minimalistic instrumentation. He wrote: „I feel that I reach here absolutely new forms of expression. The sounds become an almost animally immediate manifestation of sensual and psychic movements as if everything would become transmitted directly.”

One of the poems is entitled “Galgenlied” (gallows-song). And indeed Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914) knew Giraud and the French Symbolists and his “Galgenlieder” from 1905 seem to be a direct continuation of Giraud/Hartleben’s poems in their comic and absurd morbidity. Therefore what Morgenstern wrote about his “Galgenlieder” might somehow also apply to Pierrot and his companions: “The poetry of the gallows is a special view of the world (“Weltanschauung”), the unscrupulous freedom of the eliminated, of the dematerialized. The gallows brother is an intermediary between human being and universe. One sees the world differently from the gallow hill.”

If the original 19th century “Pierrot” of the Théâtre des Funambules was part and prototype of the Parisian Bohemianism which assembled writers and artists who tried to escape from the rules of the bourgeois conventions its perhaps no accident that the same “Pierrot” inspired a landmark of musical history which exploded existing forms and was going to project widely into the next hundred years and beyond. I’m convinced that an interpretation of Schönberg’s “Pierrot lunaire” should not only be about the text and music of the score but also about the whole world “Pierrot” came from (Commedia dell Arte, Variété-theatre, Pantomime) and leads into (surrealism and the clowns of the silent movies).

I have played the Pierrot many times as a violinist. But I always longed to do the speakers/singers part once. When, because of a painful arm condition I could practice less than usual I began to learn Pierrots Sprechgesang under the professional guidance of Esther de Bros. After a year’s work, I took the plunge in October 2017 with musicians of the Utah Symphony and Thierry Fischer in the adventurous surroundings of the Sky Salt Lake City Nightclub. I wore a replica of Jean-Gaspard and Charles Deburau’s original Pierrot costume, which really goes back to the beginning of the 18th century. I thank Thierry Fischer and his musicians from all my heart to have given me this opportunity to enlarge my experience and my horizon. Pierrot in the meantime already went to Canada, Holland, Sweden, Germany and Switzerland and he plans to wander further to London, Paris, and wherever someone desires to meet him.


For wider context see:

Robert F.Storey: PIERROT - A Critical History of a Mask, Princeton University Press 1978.

Paul Hugounet: Mimes et Pierrots - notes et documents inédits pour servir à l’histoire de la pantomime, Fischbacher, Paris, 1889. ->Link

Text in English:
Text in German and English (bad translation):


Albertine Zehme_edited.jpg
Pierrot klein-.jpg
Announcment of the first performance 191
bottom of page