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Yet this shockingly original “Pierrot” — whose hero refers to the classic namesake commedia dell’arte character of the trusting fool, historically often used as a representative of the artist in society, something like the Yiddish luftmensch — was a product of the very ideas espoused in this “Theory of Harmony.” It could be — and was — viewed as decadent but also avant-garde and confrontational. Newspapers reporting its world premiere quoted Igor Stravinsky (not long before the premiere of his own epoch-defining “Rite of Spring”), who lauded Schoenberg as “one of the greatest creative spirits of our day.” Even decades later, Stravinsky, who kept his “Pierrot” premiere ticket and concert program for the rest of his life, judged the work as “the solar plexus as well as the mind of early twentieth-century music.”
“The wine we drink with our eyes / pours down in waves nightly from the moon.” The surreal kiddush that begins “Pierrot” is the first of many parodies of the Christian Mass that scandalized German audiences — though not the French, who were used to such blasphemy. It is introduced by a seven-note theme on the piano, accompanied by plucked violin. This motif recurs in various guises throughout the cycle and immediately plunges us into a moon-drunk realm, maddeningly neither tonal nor atonal. In fact, the seven-note motif is heard in so many variants, the mere use of any block of seven notes comes to recall this theme.
Beyond this trope on the number seven, the intricacies of formal ideas and numerical relations in “Pierrot” are positively Talmudic, and they have provided generations of scholars with tempting fodder. This numerology-obsessed composer had a lifelong anxiety over the number 13 — he often avoided having a 13th measure in his scores by labeling it “12a.” He re-spelled “Aaron” in the title of his opera, “Moses and Aron,” to keep from having a title with thirteen letters. He was convinced he’d die on a Friday the 13th (he actually did, but not until 1951). “Pierrot” is the one work in which he embraced that number. He could hardly have done otherwise, as all of Giraud’s poems in this book have 13 lines — standard poetic rondeau form. Schoenberg selected 21 poems (it was his Opus 21, after all) out of the 50 in the original book and divided them into three groups of seven. The first seven songs deal with Pierrot’s moon-sickness; the second seven present him as victim and martyr; and the final seven attempt to provide resolution.
“In the early 1920s,” Alexander Ringer wrote in his remarkable book, “Arnold Schoenberg, The Composer as a Jew,” “‘Pierrot Lunaire” was the focus of many a reactionary, if not outright anti-Semitic, attack on Schoenberg, possibly because, more than any other work, it pushed the Wagnerian aesthetic well beyond the point of no return.”