The Pierrot Ensemble: Are We Through? Shouldn’t We Be?

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.


9 responses to “The Pierrot Ensemble: Are We Through? Shouldn’t We Be?

  • Paul Marbach

    I’ve generally read the ensemble name as derivative of the origins – someone called it that once and everyone just nodded their heads and said, “well that’s convenient!” is my rough estimation of the matter. A rose by any other name… and frankly, as an ensemble, it’s durable because of exactly what you describe: groups that do play “new” music form around that instrumentation because the rep exists, just as brass quintets or string quartets have formed for years. These instrumentation have rich traditions and established audiences, and like-minded musicians can huddle together around its repertoire and easily convince composers to write new work for them because they’re not the only six people that will ever perform it, in all likelihood. It will be around for a long time, in part because out of that singular piece has sprung a history.

    • Lane Harder

      Interesting points, Paul. I like your hypothesis about its origins. It’s still odd to me, though, that the “piece that has sprung a history” is being perpetuated in name while not preserving its instrumentation. It would be like a L’Histoire du Soldat ensemble forming, dropping the trombone, and replacing it with an accordion. And you’re right: brass quintets and string quartets will always exist. I have no particular problem with the instrumentation itself. Thanks for the getback. You’re the first!

  • Grendel

    After reading your article I went ‘googling’ as the man-flesh say, and much to my dismay wound up with this projecting on my moist cave walls:



  • music research

    You say: “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.”

    Introducing the DEVIANT SEPTET…


  • Chris Dromey (@_chrisdromey)

    “Pierrot Lunaire is NOTHING if not a set of songs.” Not quite. Surely, if anything, it’s a deconstruction of the song cycle, thanks to its ambiguous narrative and hallucinatory theatre, yes, but also its speaking-melody-as-instrument?

    In turn, this goes some way in explaining the diversity of responses to Pierrot, taxonomically (I reckon there are a dozen or so ‘catagories’ of Pierrot ensemble: Pierrot quintet, ‘Mad King’ ensembles, harp-substituting-piano, etc.) and aesthetically… for among the many hundreds of Pierrot ensembles, adherence to Schoenberg’s aesthetic, however loosely we define it, is in fact very rare.

    The Pierrot ensemble has been liberated, then. Pierrot ensembles (groups, that is) will go on commissioning further ‘companions’ to Pierrot, and to existing Pierrot ensembles, so rich is the repertory nowadays, and especially with Pierrot’s centenary approaching.

  • Lane Harder

    @chrisdromey, the distinction I was making was between Pierrot Lunaire as a vocal work as opposed to a non-vocal work. I don’t see your connection between the character of the work and the proliferation of Pierrot-esque pieces, particularly instrumental ones. You say that the “ambiguous narrative and hallucinatory theatre” (which includes a vocalist) of the piece explains the diversity of responses to it. How? Also, I was unaware that the Pierrot ensemble required liberation. Lastly, is the repertory really that rich?

  • Chris Dromey (@_chrisdromey)

    I’m not sure I did posit an aesthetic connection between Pierrot and the proliferation of Pierrot ensembles; I said such adherence was very rare, though the Expressionist strains of PMD’s Eight Songs spring to mind of course, and as you acknowledge, these two pieces are the most (in)famous Pierrot ensembles. I raised Pierrot’s narrative ambiguity and hallucinatory theatre only in the context of the song-cycle point, not in connection with the Pierrot ensemble repertory, but again there’s a link, if we want to look for one, between the two protagonists: the moonstruck Pierrot-cum-narrator and the mentally ravaged George III, who later narrates his own death.

    You risk overlooking the significance of Pierrot’s “instrumental substance” (to quote Stravinsky) in appraising the work itself and Pierrot ensembles since, in my view. But clearly, when there are nearly a thousand works for Pierrot ensemble in the public domain (at the last count – and no doubt a thousand more are secreted away in various national contemporary music archives), anyone would struggle to generalise about the medium, except to acknowledge its proliferation, as we both do. One final point: quite a few works were written for Pierrot-esque instrumentation between 1912 and 1965; the lineage is a little more interconnected than your blog implies. (Which 1965 Pierrot ensemble group/piece did you have in mind, by the way?)

  • Lane Harder

    I’ll buy the fact that the adherence to his aesthetic is rare (in fact, that was an implicit point of my original post), but a) you haven’t explained why you think this is, and b) why there is the continual avoidance of his original instrumentation?

    Also, how would you describe the “instrumental substance” in Pierrot? What does that term even mean? You’re not really quoting from “Conversations with Igor Stravinsky” to make this point, are you? The contents of this book have long been known to be spurious, as are the contents of Stravinsky’s Autobiography and his lecture series, Poetics of Music.

    Also, what is your source that lists “nearly a thousand” works for Pierrot ensembles “in the public domain”? Nearly a thousand works for some sort of Pierrot ensemble the intellectual property rights of which have expired?

    I agree with you that anyone would struggle to generalize about the medium. Rather than do that, I’ve tried to ask questions about why the instrumental tradition exists, sans vocalist and plus percussionist. As for which 1965 ensemble to which I was referring, please see the original post.

  • Chris Dromey (@_chrisdromey)

    On the spuriousness of writings published under Stravinsky’s name, sure, I understand Craft is said to have embellished his memories, but do we discard the texts wholesale as a result? Musicology, even recently, hasn’t taken such an absolutist view, so far as I can make out. At any rate, the proposal that Pierrot’s vocal part is ‘disembodied’, by virtue of the Sprechstimme, the competing narratological roles it plays, the polyphonic fabric of the whole piece (enlivened by its new mixed ensemble or, ahem, its instrumental substance), and in contrast to the hierarchical Romantic song cycle, is credible. And very influential too, given Boulez’s vocal metamorphoses in Le Marteau (a sort of warped mirror image of the Pierrot ensemble, of course), or Davies’s extended vocal techniques in the Eight Songs.

    By ‘public domain’, no, sorry, I didn’t mean out of copyright, merely that such a number exist, i.e. they’re ‘out there’; I’ve compiled a list of some 800 or so. (Disclaimer: my book on The Pierrot Ensembles, 1912-2012, is out next year, which is why I picked up on your marvellous post. Surprisingly few have actually codified the ‘Pierrot ensemble’ properly or allowed it into the lexicon of music criticism.) I failed to spot the connection between 1965 and The Pierrot Players, who’d tend to be considered as having formed in 1967; the idea was hatched at the Wardour Castle Summer School two summers earlier, true, but most of the musicians were recruited later.

    Why composers (largely) avoid Pierrot’s aesthetic and its (precise) instrumentation, well, clearly no one wants to follow Schoenberg slavishly on either count. Different pieces for different times? Even Davies’s Eight Songs, normally so lauded, was criticised by some critics for reviving Expressionism in the ‘wrong’ country at the ‘wrong’ time. The diversity of Pierrot ensembles since Pierrot is strangely fitting though, given the multifigured nature of Pierrot itself, with its instrumental permutations and multiple interpretations. I think the addition of percussion, thanks to the Pierrot Players/Fires of London, proliferated because of the group’s activities over twenty years, and especially their Anglo-American ties: Feldman, as you say, as well as Carter, Davidovsky, Harbison, Shifrin, Berger, Caltabiano, and probably others besides.

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