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Words and Music 9 Pierrot Lunaire: re-discovering Albert Giraud

Every student of 20th century music knows Pierrot Lunaire, one of the iconic masterpieces of 20th century music.  If you are reading this and you don’t know it, go away and check it out and I’ll catch you later.

Pierre Boulez, when asked to name the two most important pieces of modern music, had no hesitation in citing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire op 21.  The influence of Pierrot was huge – even Stravinsky had to admit its importance.  The standard lecture on the piece discusses Schoenberg’s innovative invention of ‘sprechgesang’ (the style of half spoken half sung vocal delivery), the novel instrumentation of the piece and how each of the 21 numbers uses a different combination of instruments, the classical formal devices of passacaglia, fugue and canon used within a freely atonal harmonic idiom, and the subtle reference to tonality in the final number O Alter Duft (O Ancient Scent), where a hint of E Major suggests Schoenberg taking a final farewell to the world of Major and Minor keys before launching into the brave new world of 12 tone composition.   The 21 poems are discussed rather less often, and the name of their author, Albert Giraud, is usually mentioned only in discussing the title page, where Schoenberg describes the piece thus:   ‘Dreimal seiben gedichte aus Albert Giraud’s Pierrot Lunaire (Deutsch von Otto Erich Hartleben)’ (Three times seven poems from Albert Giraud’s Pierrot Lunaire – German by Otto Erich Hartleben).

Pierrot Lunaire

For 75 years after the work’s composition, critical comment on the piece almost entirely excluded further discussion of Giraud’s original poems.  When there was mention of the poet, it was usually accompanied by a disparaging remark such as these:

‘the demented imagery of Hartleben’s text, far superior to the mawkish and over-refined original by the Belgian poet Albert Giraud’ (Rognoni)

‘..a setting of macabre fin de siècle poems by a justly forgotten poet, Albert Giraud’. (Rosen)

Indeed Pierre Boulez, the great champion of Schoenberg’s Pierrot, claimed that it was ‘composed to a text whose poetics are fairly dated; yet the mediocrity of the words should not allow us to forget the extra-ordinary dramatic quality of the music.’

Thus we were presented with a view of Pierrot as a work by and about Schoenberg.  Susan Youens puts the seal on this with her comment:

It is a rare occurrence when a translation utterly transcends its source, when literature of less than the first rank is elevated far above its original status, but Pierrot Lunaire in Hartleben’s German is one such instance.  It is as if Giraud’s pallid pastels were a draft in one language for Hartleben’s “finished” work in another.  The texts of Op 21 are thus the final result of a threefold process: Giraud’s Parnassian incarnation of the fin-de-siècle Pierrot-Artist; Hartleben’s vivid, angst filled German transformation of that verse; and Schoenberg’s final labors as an Editor-Composer.

Let’s think about that for a moment.  Are there other instances where the translation of poetry improves it?  I don’t know of any.  In translating poetry something has to be lost.  If you keep the precise sense of the words, the chances are you have to sacrifice some of their rhythm or the sound of the language. If you want to keep that, you will probably need to alter the sense a little.  In poetry which uses rhyme (Giraud does) there are further huge challenges – translators of Dante generally don’t even think about attempting his terza rima.  And yet Youens and others believe that Hartleben improved the original.  It’s unlikely that Hartleben thought that.  He began translating the poems only a few years after their appearance in 1884, because he thought they were great.  He performed some of them in cabaret, and he even wrote a few more original Pierrot poems in the same rondel form.  His work was a homage to Giraud.

So why might Boulez, Youens, Rosen and others feel that Giraud was an inferior poet, despite their enthusiasm for the piece which leans so heavily on his poetry?  And why did Giraud, apparently hugely popular in his day – Pierrot was reprinted four times up to 1928 – fade almost completely from view, with only Schoenberg left to shine a faint light upon him?  In a word – fashion.  Even in his day, it seems, Giraud prided himself on his conservative approach to poetic form (though not to its content).  He and his ‘Parnassian’ group of poets wrote in classical forms, such as the strictly controlled rondel, while the symbolists championed ‘vers libre’ – free and modern.  You either supported Giraud and Gilkin, or the hugely influential Mallarme and Verlaine.   It is perfectly understandable that the champions of Modernism (Debussy and then Boulez) might reject the old-fashioned formalism of Giraud, and that the critical herd of modernist commentators might be inclined to follow their lead.  At least one of the principle writers on Schoenberg allowed himself to confirm that Hartleben ‘translated and greatly improved’ Giraud, without ever seeing the original poems.

Schoenberg also never read the original poems.  Nor did he choose to set Hartleben – the poems were given to him by the commissioner, the actress Albertine Zehme, with a request that he set some of them to music.    Oh yes – did I mention this? – Giraud’s collection of poems has not 21 but 50 poems.  When Susan Youens described Schoenberg as ‘editor in chief’ she was right in this respect:  Schoenberg took the liberty of entirely ignoring the cohesion of Giraud’s cycle, and instead selected ‘three times seven’ of his favourites, re-organising them into a new sequence.  O Alter Duft (Parfums de Bergame) is not the final poem in Giraud, it’s number 34. Schoenberg’s opener Mondestrunken (Ivresse de lune) is number 16.  Thus critics commenting on the ‘narrative’ of the work, are commenting on Schoenberg’s constructed narrative and not on Giraud’s.  Discussion about whether the ‘reciter’ is Pierrot or Colombine (neither works for the whole piece) ignores the fact that in Giraud the ‘narrator’, where there is one, is Giraud himself, or Giraud/Pierrot – because the central point of the cycle is that Giraud feels himself to be like Pierrot – a little lost in modern times and out of step with them in many very personal ways.  As Giraud says in his preface to the collection (dedicated to his friend the poet Iwan Gilkin):

Here they are, untouched, these Moon poems. In them I have not, as modern authors say “analysed my era” nor moralised like a protestant, I have simply been content to affirm – amid a modern plague of literary photographers – a right that we both insolently claim – the poet’s right to lyric fantasy.

And why not?  But in case you might be thinking that perhaps this is starting to sound like light, airy- fairy stuff, and that perhaps Boulez and Youens have a point, let me put you straight.  The rondel form is incredibly rigorous: three stanzas of 4, 4 and 5 lines.  A strict two rhyme scheme for each poem thus:


In Pierrot Lunaire, 50 Rondels Bergamasques, every poem conforms precisely to this scheme. And yet within this apparently restrictive form the poet comes up with delight after delight – both in the imagery and in the language.  Hartleben kept the imagery for the most part – Pierrot cooking an omelette on his roof and throwing it into the night sky, Pierrot drilling a hole in Cassander’s head and then using it as a pipe bowl to smoke from, Pierrot cowering beneath the crescent moon which he sees as a polished sabre ready to fall upon his neck, Harlequin flaunting his wealth and good looks before Colombine………….  Ah! Perhaps you are surprised by that one?  You’re right, there is no mention of Harlequin in Schoenberg, although he is an important figure representing Pierrot’s sophisticated modern rival for Colombine’s affection.  He’s there in Hartleben alright, but not in the poems Schoenberg selected.  Nor for that matter is Shakespeare or Watteau, and Hartleben too kept their appearance to a minimum.  Why? Because the ‘fairy palaces of Shakespeare’ and Watteau’s ‘amber coloured backdrops’ which lend the atmosphere to Giraud’s theatrical scenarios are not conducive to the Expressionist world of Hartleben and Schoenberg.  Giraud was indeed ‘out of step’ and confesses to it. In his poem 37 ‘Alphabet’ Giraud explains how as a child, while other boys preferred their sabres and their helmets, he preferred his multi coloured alphabet.  In poem 25 ‘Valse de Chopin’ he confesses that waltzes, far from charming him, fill him with feelings of unease and leave ‘a faintly medicinal flavour – like a spit of blood’.  In the final poem ‘Cristal de Boheme’ (50) he explains that ‘I am disguised as Pierrot, to offer to the one I love (Gilkin?), a ray of moonlight, enclosed in a fine Bohemian bottle’.

In many ways, though, Giraud was ahead of his time;  some of his 1884 imagery is almost suggestive of Jarry and the later surrealists.  Only in his poetic form can he be said to be conservative – although one might argue that amidst the ‘plague of literary photographers’ his stance could be seen as a kind of post-modernism.  Either way, his work does not deserve to be consigned to a footnote in the discussion of a modernist composition in German.  Fortunately there has been a resurgence of critical attention to Giraud’s work over the last 15 years in which I can claim to have played a part.  I will write about that in my next blog, which will discuss the other Pierrot Lunaire: – mine!


For a more detailed discussion of Giraud’s  Pierrot Lunaire see my article in 20th Century Music: A Multicoloured Alphabet.


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