Total Depravity Between a ‘Prayer’ and ‘The Crosses’

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Then the third, fourth and fifth poems form a trilogy of egregious sins each associated with death

By the end of Part I of the song cycle, Pierrot inhabits the Dostoevskian worldview, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” (see Part I of the series) or more specifically, the Pauline conception, “If the dead are not raised [i.e. Christ], ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Cor. 15:32). With this newfound freedom in a world devoid of God, Pierrot in Part II of the work will come to be defined by the first point of Calvinism, total depravity. As defined by John Piper, pastor and theologian of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, total depravity is “man’s natural condition apart from any grace exerted by God to restrain or transform man… depravity is our condition in relation to God primarily and only secondarily in relation to man.”[1] In other words, as Paul told the Roman church: “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one’” (Rom. 3:9-10, emphasis mine).

In Pierrot’s circumstance his unrighteousness has been sent into hyperactive mode, displaying the most debased of sins and moving beyond the more pedestrian ones he committed in Part I. The narrative flow of the middle section of Pierrot sets the songs in a thematic palindromic structure (see Fig. 1). The sin of the first poem is tied to death in the last, with a musical interlude before the final poem reminding listeners that Jesus is dead. In the second poem Pierrot is master over the moon (i.e. sin) but in the parallel sixth poem, the moon punishes Pierrot for his sins. Then the third, fourth and fifth poems form a trilogy of egregious sins each associated with death in some manner: stealing dead bodies, murder of the self and lusting after death.

Fig. 1

Part II opens with Nacht (Night) and as the sun sets the problem with Pierrot is identified, “invisible the monsters, onto human hearts.” Furthermore, the butterflies of the song are a personification of sin collapsing in on Pierrot’s heart set to descending scalar runs in the lower range of the instruments. By the end of the song Pierrot is completely in the dark, abandoned by the moon and left to his own devices. Then in Gebet an Pierrot (Prayer to Pierrot)Pierrot is identified as “Durchlaucht vom Monde” [Highness of the moon]. Having taken on the likeness of the moon, Pierrot thinks he has become the master of sin as he actualizes his power as ruler over the moon and positions Pierrot to move into total depravity.

Schoenberg uses the reprise of ‘Der kranke Mond’ to wordlessly revisit the misery of Pierrot

A trilogy of Pierrot’s depraved actions begins with Raub (Robbery), where the lustful thoughts of the clown in Part I of Pierrot are realized in outward sin. In Raub, Pierrot goes to the graveyard to steal bodies from their grave with his drinking buddies (“Steigt Pierrot hinab – zu rauben” [Pierrot descends- to steal]). Playing out like a scene from an opera buffa, the clown and his friends run away as they become frightened by the eyes of the dead bodies they intended to rob. Then in Rote Messe (Red Mass), Pierrot murders himself by removing his heart: “Zeigt er den bangen Seelen/Die triefend rote Hostie:/Sein Herz – in blutgen Fingern” [He shows to the frightened souls/The dripping red Host:/His heart - in bloody fingers]. There is an allusion to the rhythmic piano figure from Mondestrunken linking the lust of the eye (which began Pierrot’s fall into sin) to his suicide. Furthermore, the songs ends with a 12 note chord (Fig. 2) connecting Rote Messe to the 12 note freedom of Der kranke Mond. A natural conclusion to the inevitable outcome of a nihilistic worldview; where if life is meaningless then suicide is an attractive and viable option.[2] Lastly, Galgenlied (Gallow’s Song) is a fast-paced song which increases with rhythmic intensity over time and is indicative of the ephemeral lusts Pierrot has for his own death. The gallows are described as “Die dürre Dirne” [a scraggy harlot] who “Wollüstig wird sie Den Schelm umhalsen” [lustfully she will hug the rouge’s neck] and Pierrot’s “letzte Geliebte sein In seinem Hirne Steckt wie ein Nagel” [last Lover in his brain is stuck like a nail].

Fig. 2

While on the gallows, Pierrot is faced with the moon for the first time in Part II of the work. This short piece, Enthauptung (Beheading), is mostly in the lower range of the instruments and is comprised mostly of a contrapuntal texture as the crescent moon is described as a scimitar. In a role reversal, the Pierrot characterized as “Highness of the moon” in Gebet an Pierrot  is now punished by the moon, “es sause strafend schon Auf seinen Sünderhals hernieder” [it [the moon] whisks vengefully already towards his [Pierrot's] sinning neck rushing]. Following this brief episode is a long musical transition which contains the only musical reprise of the entire work. The flute melody of this transition comes from Der kranke Mond establishing a correlation between Madonna and the movement which follows this transition, Die Kreuze (The Crosses).

According to acclaimed vocalist Phyllis Bryn-Julson and music theorist Paul Mathews, “This transition is ultimately programmatic… ‘Madonna’ signals the beginning of Pierrot’s darkest period, which continues until ‘Die Kreuze’… Before ‘Die Kreuze’ begins, Schoenberg uses the reprise of ‘Der kranke Mond’ to wordlessly revisit the misery of Pierrot one last time before bringing the section to a close.”[3] Moreover, it reminds listeners that the Christ of Madonna is dead and unable to save Pierrot from his total depravity. Pierrot will be the one hung on the cross to die, not as a replacement messiah but for his own sins because the substitutionary atonement found through Christ is absent.

In Die Kreuze, Pierrot is “Blindgeschlagen von der Geier Flatterndem Gespensterschwarme” [Struck blind by the vultures fluttering in a spectral swarm], recalling the imagery of butterflies descending on Pierrot in Nacht. Comparisons are then made between Pierrot’s sufferings on the cross and Christ’s: “silently hemorrhage,” “dead the head,” “congealed the tresses,” “roar of the mob,” and “red kingly crown.” Subsequently in a dramatic flourish, the chords which began Die Kreuze, expand to a nine note chord at a triple forte volume ending Part II. Interestingly, Schoenberg told the vocalist Albertine Zheme in a rehearsal for Pierrot regarding Die Kreuze, “If you want to speak this piece with the correct expression then you must think of a life insurance policy!!”[4] While Schoenberg was looking for a light-hearted vocal approach, the image of a man dying on the cross for his owns sins instead of Jesus dying for him could only be tragic. After being crucified, Pierrot yearns to reclaim his former life as he seeks to justify himself in Part III of the song cycle and Part IV of our series, Looking for Self-Justification Through Reflections on the Past.


[1] John Piper, “Total Depravity,” Mongergism, 1998, Accessed August 30, 2012 <http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/piper/depravity.html>

[2] Albert Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus outlines three solutions: transcendence, acceptance of the absurdity of life or suicide. Camus’ concluded that the only option where true freedom can reside is in the absurdist framework since suicide nor transcendence could fulfill an absolute freedom.

[3] Phyllis Bryn-Julson and Paul Mathews, Inside Pierrot Lunaire: Performing the Sprechstimme in Schoenberg’s Masterpiece (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Presss, 2009), 167-168.

[4] As quoted in Bryn-Julson and Matthews, Inside Pierrot Lunaire, 169.