Are we not over the “Pierrot ensemble” as an instrumentation? Does anyone else wonder why music for this instrumentation keeps showing up on concert programs? Do composers and audiences really love this particular combination of instruments so much as to warrant the sheer volume of music that currently exists for it? Why are there so many groups dedicated to it, and also so many that bastardize its original instrumentation?
Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds ‘Pierrot lunaire’ by Arnold Schoenberg was premiered in Berlin in 1912. The work, commonly known as Pierrot Lunaire, is scored for narrator (“Rezitation” in the score, on a stave notated in treble clef), flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), violin (doubling viola), cello, and piano. Whatever else one thinks of the music or the style of the music, the piece must surely give one pause when considering that Schoenberg could sustain an essentially atonal collection of songs for nearly 40 minutes, employing a wide variety of moods and settings. This particular conception of the ensemble, in the hands of Schoenberg, worked well, especially given that the ensemble of instruments was scored to support the narrator.
Since 1965, the world has not been without some type of professional “Pierrot ensemble,” and since then, each new group has been refashioned to perform new works for a similar instrumentation. In that year, The Pierrot Players were founded in London before changing their name to The Fires of London. Active from 1967 to 1987, the group employed the services of Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies, among others. Eventually, the group became a vehicle for Davies’ own music, notably Antechrist (1967), which used the “doubled” wind instruments (piccolo and bass clarinet), dispensed with the narrator and the piano, and substituted 2 (or 3) percussionists. This creative approach to a subset of a Pierrot ensemble is understandable, particularly since it was premiered at the ensemble’s first concert, presumably alongside Pierrot. The following year, Davies continued his long list of transcriptions and realisations with Purcell: Fantasia and Two Pavans, taking an equally creative approach to instrumentation by substituting harpsichord and “out-of-tune upright piano for a regular piano, and this time including an “optional” voice part. Davies would go on to use The Fires of London to promote his own music in creative ways, and in the process, would compose probably the most famous piece for the ensemble apart from the original, Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), but bear in mind that this was an ensemble dedicated to the performance of Pierrot Lunaire. Sometimes guitar would be added to his works, sometimes percussion, but very often his pieces for the ensemble or subsets of it were vocal pieces.
Other “early” pieces for this instrumentation include Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life 2 (1970) for Pierrot ensemble minus vocalist, substituting celeste for piano and adding solo viola. Donald Martino’s Notturno won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974; it was probably the highest-profile piece for the “Pierrot substituting percussion for vocalist” instrumentation at that time, if not one of the only ones. Notturno was premiered by Speculum Musicae, a New York-based chamber ensemble founded in 1970, dedicated to the performance of new music. This dedication to new music is an aim that many Pierrot groups have in common. eighth blackbird, Pierrot Lunaire Ensemble Wien, da capo chamber players, New York New Music Ensemble, and (probably the highest profile group) Piccola Accademia degli Specchi have demonstrated their commitment to performing new music through residencies and recordings, as well as calls for scores for new pieces. None of these ensembles, however, include a vocalist in their respective rosters. Lunatics at Large, a New York-based “Pierrot ensemble” augmented by soprano voice and viola seems to have found a creative solution to this issue, not shying away from difficult vocal repertoire of the 20th Century (about half of their repertoire includes works for voice).
Part of the reason for the “standard” instrumentation’s durability is because many of the ensembles with that instrumentation are “new music friendly.” It makes sense, then, for many composers to compose for that instrumentation in the hopes of getting works played. But why are there so many of these ensembles, ostensibly created as they are with the Pierrot Lunaire instrumentation but curiously substituting percussion for a vocalist? Is this bastardized version of the ensemble really that influential? If so, why not call it the Notturno Ensemble instead of Pierrot? After all, can’t we really trace this ensemble, such as it is, back to the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and not 1912? By not including a vocalist (meaning that no text is being set) and by adding a percussionist, it seems that the ensembles are not referencing Pierrot Lunaire at all except in the most vestigial way. I find it funny that the Wikipedia entry on “Pierrot ensemble” lists Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in its “Major works for Pierrot ensemble” section, but adding “+ mezzo-soprano” (since the voice type in Schoenberg’s piece is not specified, it is frequently performed by a mezzo).
We have this entire issue exactly backwards.
Pierrot Lunaire is NOTHING if not a set of songs. Giraud’s poetry is what gives rise to the paranoid atmosphere of Schoenberg’s music. Does anyone claim that the accompanying instrumentation is as special as it would seem, given the proliferation of Pierrot ensembles? A pair of winds, a pair of strings, and a piano. It is no more special, say, than the ensemble used in Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat: clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, percussion, violin, and double bass, and yet I never really see this delightfully wonky instrumentation on concert programs and certainly no ensembles dedicated to it. I recently composed a song cycle for this instrumentation and soprano, and found it to be incredibly challenging, and yet I was surprised by the sheer expressive variety inherent in this group of instruments, especially for accompanying the voice.
I share the opinion of many that the “Pierrot substituting percussion for vocalist” is getting old. Schoenberg’s 1912 magnum opus will ALWAYS sound fresh, due largely to its conception as a set of songs. More groups like Lunatics at Large (that include a vocalist, and a VIOLA of all things) would be most welcome.