This October marks the centenary of one of the oddest landmarks in music history. One of the most influential works ever, it remains knotted in paradoxes. The composer was a Jew who at the time insisted he was Christian; but not very long after this disavowal emphatically re-embraced his Jewish heritage. The work mocked religion — specifically the Mass — but was nothing if not spiritual. It transfixed audiences; but disturbed some listeners enough for them to shout for the composer to be shot. It was abstruse music; but was performed as if it were cabaret.
The words were not sung; but they weren’t quite spoken, either. It used French poetry, but could not seem more Germanic if translated into German. It was obsessed with numbers and numerology and order; but shocked listeners with the breathtaking freedoms it demonstrated. Stravinsky, Ravel, Puccini, Strauss and Gershwin were among the composers who attended its premiere performances and began to incorporate many of this music’s ideas in their own works. Even after 100 years, it retains both its impact and its strangeness.
Say “Pierrot,” and any musician will instantly know you’re talking about Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 21, “Three Times Seven Poems from Albert Giraud’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire.’”
Arnold Schoenberg was self-taught and full of contradictions. Gustav Mahler found the younger composer in equal measure fascinating and infuriating. Their tempestuous friendship often found both men breaking off conversations, vowing never to speak again, only to find themselves eager to restart the conversation anew. In 1911, just months after Mahler’s death and the year before “Pierrot,” Schoenberg published his “Theory of Harmony” (Harmonielehre), dedicated to Mahler’s “hallowed memory.” But he also cited Otto Weininger, the notoriously misogynistic, self-hating Jew who committed a spectacularly public suicide at age 23, just after publishing his influential book, “Sex and Character,” which embraced Wagner’s claim that the “Aryan” race was being destroyed by cross-breeding with “parasitic” Jews.