Imagining a World with a (Still) Dead Messiah


In Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Pierrot is born into a world where Jesus is still dead. In the most dramatic moment of Part I of the work (Madonna), Mary the mother of Jesus holds in her emaciated hands her “Sohnes Leiche, Ihn zu zeigen aller Menschheit–“ [son's corpse, To show him to all mankind –]. Understanding the power of a living messiah, Gamaliel, “a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people,” in Acts 5:27-42 reminded the Sanhedrin about two men who claimed to be the messiah, Theudas and Judas the Galilean. Upon the death of these false messiahs their followers disbanded, since a dead messiah is unable to save anyone. Hoping that the followers of Jesus, in the early days of the Church, would also come to nothing, Gamaliel told the chief priests to “keep away from these men [disciples preaching a resurrected Jesus] and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:38-39)

Pierrot in the opening numbers is unaware he inhabits a world where Jesus is dead as he develops a lustful obsession with the moon (the personification of sin and further explored in Part II of this series). This flirtation with sin plunges him into insanity by the end of the fifth song, Valse de Chopin (Waltz of Chopin), where he exclaims:

Kommst mir nimmer aus den Sinnen!                     [I can't get you out of my head!
Haftest mir an den Gedanken,                                   You adhere to my thoughts
Wie ein blasser Tropfen Bluts!                                   Like a pale drop of blood!]

Parisian audiences found Maddona to be particularly disturbing…

The sixth song of the cycle, Madonna, then represents a turning point for the Pierrot character, where he desperately is in need of a savior but none is to be found.  Madonna is in the style of a Baroque aria, a musical trope signifying a religious context. Split into two sections, the piece opens with a pizzicato cello line reminiscent of Basso continuo (used extensively throughout the Baroque, see Fig. 1) and then moves into a louder section with wailing cello glissandi and pounding piano attacks. Textually, the first portion of the song describes Mary’s waning physical state and pauses dramatically before revealing to the world that Jesus is dead. It is at this moment where the music becomes filled with pathos and consummates with the singer screaming, “O Mutter aller Schmerzen!” [O Mother of all sorrows!], a sentiment Pierrot will apply to himself in Der Kranke Mond (The Sickly Moon). The hammering piano chords underlying this text represent the nails pounded into Christ’s hands and are built on two tri-tone intervals separated by a minor second (Fig. 2).[1] This highly dissonant chord drives home the finality of Christ’s death without presenting any hope for Pierrot and Schoenberg’s notation of “a lengthy pause” before proceeding to the next song allows the audience to soak in this new reality.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Parisian audiences found Maddona to be particularly disturbing as Marya Freund, organizer of a French performance of Pierrot in 1922, described in a letter to Schoenberg, “Here Pierrot was again a deep impression on the audience… Great impression made with… ‘Madonna’ (But with opposition and naturally, the subsequent repetition).”[2] Replying to Freund, Schoenberg was “perturbed” by the audience’s reaction to Madonna but noticed the same reaction from audiences in Geneva and Amsterdam and also “‘Rote Messe’ [No. 11, Red Mass] and ‘Kreuze’ [No. 14, Crosses] somehow give religious offence.”[3] Further stating that this was never his intention, since he is neither anti-religious nor un-religious but admits that he “seem[s] to have had an altogether much naiver view of these poems than most people have and am still not quite uncertain that this is entirely unjustified.”[4] The reason audiences reacted negatively to Madonna is akin to a viewer’s reaction to Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting, “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” (image at the top of the article), a world with a dead Jesus is frightening indeed.

…the musical embodiment of the Nietzschean maxim, “If nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

At this point in the narrative the seemingly inevitable reaction of Pierrot is deep sorrow, since all that is left (having discovered that the savior of the world is dead) is Pierrot and the moon (symbolic of Pierrot’s sin). Der Kranke Mond comprises of flute and voice, the sparsest musical texture of Pierrot, with the flute symbolizing the moon and the voice, Pierrot. Schoenberg would later describe this song as an “example of pure freedom in music”[5] because in this song he forged a new musical language; one lacking a tonal center, with all 12 notes treated as equals and is the musical embodiment of the Nietzschean maxim, “If nothing is true, everything is permitted.” In other words, without a referential tone in which the music is foundationally set upon (truth from a tonal perspective), a composer can then use the 12-tones of the Western system in any manner they choose. This is the musical incarnation of the existential idea in which meaninglessness is equal to (borrowing Schoenberg’s classification) “pure” freedom.

The removal of structural emphasis on specific tones can best be seen in “Du nächtig todeskranker Mond… fremde Melodie” [the nocturnal gravely ill moon[‘s]… strange melody] which charms Pierrot. This flute melody beginning at measure 9 comprises of 11 of the 12 possible notes in the Western system (only missing A#, which is sung in the preceding measure), foreshadowing Schoenberg’s later atonality (Fig. 3). While Schoenberg’s compositional choices are operating under the Nietzschean ideal of freedom, Pierrot as a character will function in Part II of the work in the Dostoevskian mindset of, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” This outlook on life provides Pierrot the opportunistic ability to conduct any act under the banner of permissiveness because God has been presented to him as dead. While the conception of a world where God is dead comes at the end of Part I of the song cycle, to understand Pierrot’s need of a savior we must start at the beginning of Pierrot in Part II of our series, Moon as Idol: Lust of the Eyes, Sensuality and Power.

Fig. 3


[1] The tri-tone interval was traditionally depictive of the devil/demonic. Additionally, the tri-tone and the minor second (or major seventh) are the most dissonant intervals possible in the twelve note Western system.

[2] Letter to Arnold Schoenberg, Marya Freund, December 26, 1922.

[3] Letter to Marya Freund, Arnold Schoenberg, December 30th, 1922.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bryan R. Simms, The Atonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2000), 139.

2 thoughts on “Imagining a World with a (Still) Dead Messiah

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