Looking for Self-Justification Through Reflections on the Past

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In Part III of the song cycle, Pierrot is operating under the paradigm of seeking out self-justification by recapturing his former identity but unfortunately he continues to sin. Paul in his letter to the Roman’s describes this cycle of desiring to do good but doing evil instead:

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? (Rom. 7:21-24)

Whereas Paul then states, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!,” (justification by faith in Christ) Pierrot does not have that option available to him (see Part I of the series). So the only alternative for Pierrot is to reflect on his past as a means of self-justification in overcoming his life of total depravity. Pierrot’s attempt at self-justification is achieved in two ways, through narrative, as Pierrot endeavors to return to his past identity as a farcical clown and musical form, the final seven songs contain “fragrances” of various Western musical styles (Table 1). In the end Pierrot’s self-justification will ultimately fail and Job 25:4-6 can help us understand why: “How then can man be in the right before God? How can he who is born of woman be pure? Behold, even the moon is not bright, and the stars are not pure in his eyes; how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!” (emphasis mine)

Table 1

At the end of Part II of Pierrot, Pierrot has been crucified for his own sins and after that tragic moment he longs for home in Heimweh (Homesick). Thinking that reclaiming his disposition as “Italiens alter Pantomime” [Italy’s ancient pantomime] will dispose of his sins, he longingly looks toward the “Heimathhimmel” [homeland sky]. Pierrot’s homesick feelings are expressed through a yearning violin melody which is accentuated by piano chords recalling an impressionistic musical ambiance. Pierrot desires to move past his total depravity as “Da vergisst Pierrot die Trauermienen!” [Then forgets Pierrot the tragic façade!] of his sins and consequential crucifixion but with “den bleichen Feuerschein des Mondes” [the pale-fire glow of the moon] still present this will be a difficult task; one which Pierrot will try to accomplish by revisiting his past.

Unlike Der Dandy, where Pierrot proudly wears the moon on his face, now he is ashamed of the mask which reflects his true sinful nature.

Pierrot’s first attempt at recalling his former life begins with a prank on Cassander (Pierrot’s frequent punching-bag in commedia dell’Arte) in Gemeinheit (Mischievousness). Set as a whimsical minuet, Pierrot turns Cassander’s head into a hookah stuffing his skull with tobacco as he “behaglich schmucht under pafft” [contentedly smokes and puffs]. This is a prank which goes beyond the pale and in the parallel song Serenade (derivative of a slow Viennese waltz) Pierrot plays Cassander’s head with a viola bow. It is interesting to note that dance forms so closely tied with lust in Part I of Pierrot, are now associated with ill-humor as Pierrot tries to reform his ways. Additionally, while the moon does not appear in either song the effects of the moon are clearly seen as Pierrot’s pranks take on a diabolical character.

Both ventures to recover Pierrot’s humor fail, so he alternately looks toward someone from his past, a duenna (governess), to love him in Parodie (Parody). Pierrot is under the assumption that the gray haired woman with all her wisdom and love will be able to remove the moon from his presence. However, this canonic song goes on to reveal that behind the duenna’s “knitting needles” is “Der mond, der böse Spöfler” [The moon, the evil mimic], imitating the duenna who loves Pierrot. Trying to escape the moon under the banner of human love only brings Pierrot back to the object of his sin, the moon. The permanence of the moon in Pierrot’s life is then further developed in Der Mondfleck (The Moon Spot).

A fairytale wish for a living messiah which never came true and a dire end to Pierrot’s story.

As the central climax of Part III, Der Mondfleck, opens with Pierrot walking on a “warm evening” when he discovers a bothersome bright spot of moonlight on his back. Thinking this spot is a makeup stain (“das ist so ein Gipsfleck!” [It's some plaster smudge!]), he vigorously tries to remove the spot but to no avail. Unlike Der Dandy, where Pierrot proudly wears the moon on his face, now he is ashamed of the mask which reflects his true sinful nature. The musical foundation of two simultaneous canons occurring between the viola/cello and the piccolo/clarinet are further indicators of the moon’s persistence in mirroring back to Pierrot his sins and displaying them to the world.

Speaking about Der Mondfleck in a December 1916 note addressed to Zemlinsky, Schoenberg had these striking words about the function of the moon spot:

It is banal to say the we [artists] are all moonstruck fools; what the poet means is that we are trying our best to wipe off the imaginary moon spots from our clothing at the same time that we worship our crosses. Let us be thankful that we have our wounds: With them we have something that helps us to place a low value on matter. From the scorn for our wounds comes our scorn for our enemies and our power to sacrifice our lives to a moonbeam.[1]

Pierrot has “sacrifice[d] his life to a moonbeam,” which is why he cannot rid himself of the moon and through the “worship [of his own] cross” he has attempted to regain his previous life. With the knowledge that the moon is part of who is he, Pierrot gives into its power as he makes the journey back to his homeland in Heimfahrt (The Journey Home). Pierrot’s passivity under the influence of the moon is presented in the opening line, “Der Mondstrahl ist das Ruder” [The moonbeam is the rudder] as Pierrot’s boat takes him to Bergamo with the sun beginning to peek over the horizon. The style of this song is suggestive of a barcorolle (song sung by Venetian gondolieri) in 6/8 time and contains musical figures like waves crashing on the shore.

As Pierrot reaches home in O Alter Duft (O Ancient Fragrance) the suns has risen and he recalls the wishful thinking of Colombine hoping the process of self-justification has worked in eliminating the moon from his life.

All meinen Unmut geb ich preis;             [All my frustrations I have eulogized;
Aus meinem sonnurnrahmten Fenster  From my sun-framed window
Beschau ich frei die liebe Welt                   I marvel over the dear world
Und träum hinaus in selge Weiten…        And dream further to glorious reaches…
O alter Duft - aus Märchenzeit!                 Oh ancient fragrance—of a fairytale age!]

Structured as a German Lied, Schoenberg revisits tonality[2] to conclude Pierrot’s undertaking to resuscitate his prior life and end on a hopeful note. Rounding out the narrative of Pierrot,the final measures of O Alter Duft contain the most fascinating elements of the entire song. The last appearance of the moon occurs in a distant sounding piccolo melody while Pierrot sings “Und träum hinaus in selge Weiten…” [And dream further to glorious reaches…] (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1

The dream of Pierrot is that his sin has been removed once and for all but while the sun has risen the moon is still faintly present. Furthermore, Bryn-Julson and Mathews see in the final measures of O Alter Duft remnants of the flute melody from Der kranke Mond, so that the concluding songs in each of the three sections of Pierrot allude to this pivotal moment in Pierrot’s narrative.[3]  A final reminder that Jesus is dead and unable to save Pierrot as Pierrot sings his last words unaccompanied, “Märchenzeit” [fairytale age] (Fig. 2). A fairytale wish for a living messiah which never came true and a dire end to Pierrot’s story but it does not have to be our story (see Epilogue: A Better Story).

Fig. 2



[1] As quoted in Bryan R. Simms, The Atonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 126.

[2] According to Phyllis Bryn-Julson and Paul Mathews, “‘O Alter Duft’ is in E major with few qualifications.” See Inside Pierrot Lunaire: Performing the Sprechstimme in Schoenberg’s Masterpiece (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Presss, 2009), 212.

[3] Bryn-Julson and Mathews, Inside Pierrot Lunaire, 214-215.

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