‘Pierrot Lunaire’: Deprived of a Savior, an Introduction

Albertine Zehme and Ensemble at First Performance

Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the premiere performance of Schonberg’s watershed atonal work Pierrot Lunaire (Lunar Clown). Setting and rearranging 21 poems from a German translation of Albert Giraud’s 50 poem cycle on the commedia dell’Arte clown character Pierrot, Schoenberg crafted a Pierrot who is even more sinister and dark then Giraud’s. Schoenberg purposefully removed poetic references to daylight (with three exceptions), having his Pierrot remain largely in the dark (save for the dim lit moon) throughout the narrative arc of the piece. Divided into three sections of seven poems each, the first section begins Pierrot’s lustful obsession with the moon, the second section uncovers the consequences of his moon fixation (becoming more deranged and depraved) and in the final section, Pierrot journeys home trying to escape the intoxicating influence of the moon.

Arnold Schoenberg

Of the numerous hermeneutical approaches to Pierrot (Susan Youens’ “allegory on the condition of the modern artist”[1], Richard Kurth’s dichotomy of white versus black Pierrot[2] and Reinhold Brinkmann’s song cycle which is “music about music”[3]), our exploration of the work will interpret Pierrot’s plunge into total depravity with no hope of rescue, as best understood in a world devoid of the gospel (a similar approach is found in Joe Carter’s interpretation of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series).  It is in the sixth poem of the song cycle, Madonna, where Mary, mother of Jesus, holds out to the world a dead savior. A Jesus who never rose from the dead and as Paul states in 1 Corinthians, “…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). In other words, no resurrection of Jesus equals no gospel and no hope of salvation. Pierrot’s increasingly debased exploits witnessed through Part II of the work and looking for self-justification in Part III can be traced back to this sixth song in the cycle, declaring the gospel as fictitious. With this framework in mind, we bring you five articles on Pierrot Lunaire, a universe deficient of Jesus Christ the living one.


[1]  Susan Youens, “Excavating an Allegory: The Texts of Pierrot lunaire,” Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute 8/2 (1984), 95-115.

[2] Richard Kurth, “Pierrot Lunaire: persona, voice, and the fabric of allusion” in The Cambridge Companion to Schoenberg, ed. Jennifer Shaw and Joseph Auner, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 122.

[3] Reinhold Brinkmann, “The Fool as Paradigm: Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire and the Modern Artist,” in Schoenberg and Kandinsky: An Historic Encounter, ed. K. Boehmer (Amsterdam: Harwood, 1997), 157.

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