The recordings made recently of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and Alban Berge's Violin Concer-to bring to this country for the first time in permanent form two of the greatest works by two of the greatest modern composers. For those who have known Schoenberg only through an early work--the mawkish puddle of Post-Romantic sentimentality known as Verklarte Nacht--the recording of Peirrot Lunaire demands a re-estimation of his true greatness--and weakness.
Pierrot was given its first public performance --after forty rehearsals--twenty-nine years ago in Berlin. A month later the Berlin Correspondent of the Musical Courier wrote:
"Schoenberg's music to Albert Girand's fantastical poems entitled Pierre Lunaire is the last word in cacophony and musical anarchy. Some day it may be pointed out as of historical interest, because it represents the turning point, for the outraged muse surely can endure no more of this. Such noise must drive even the moonstruck Pierrot back to the realm of real music. Albertine Zehme . . . repeated the poems while a musical, or rather, unmusical ensemble . . . discoursed the most car splitting combination of tones ever to desecrate the walls of a Berlin music hall."
Whatever one may think of this slick, glib disposal of a serious composition, it is impossible to deny that even after a lapse of thirty years. Pierrot is a formidable thing to listen to. It is one of the purest examples of atonal music ever composed by Schoenberg or any of his pupils, which is not to say that it is the last word in musical anarchy, but only that it represents in the language of notes what Finnegan's Wake does in the language of words, or Guernica in painting a dissolution of the old formal bases of art, the concept of tonality in music, of grammar in writing, and of pictorialism in the visual arts. And so to appreciate Pierrot, the listener's hearing apparatus must go through a similar process of dissolution, and come out on the other side of tonality, free from tonal inhibitions.
But although harmonically Pierrot stands on the threshold of a brave new world, in spirit it takes its source from the work of Mahler. It is Post-Romantic, not as Verklarte Nacht is Post-Romantic, a jumble of Wagnerian cliches; but as Das Lied von der Erdeis Post-Romantic, lamenting a dying culture. The formal resemblance between Pierrot and Das Lied (they are both song cycles) goes deeper than mere coincidence. It links together in a fundamental way two works essentially decadent--where structural unity has been replaced by a series of separate emotional patterns, where the medium is over-refined, and the individual phrase, the passing subtlety, counts for more than the whole.
Emotionally, too, Pierrot Lunaire stems from Mahler. It expresses the same bitterness and heart-sickness, the same neurotic introversion, and it strikes that note of the deliberately bizarre and macabre that is one of the surest tokens of decadent art. The only other contemporary work of art that can be compared to it in this respect is Picasso's mural Guernica. That also embodies an incredible amount of pure horror, with the total effect bordering on hysteria.
Alban Berg, Schoenberg's greatest disciple, composed a Violin Concerto just before his death. This magnificent piece of music is superior to Pierrot Lunaire chiefly because any architectonically-built composition surpasses a chain of short movements, but apart from that it possesses an immediacy of appeal and an emotional impact almost unequalled in any other modern work. Suite Lyrique, for string quartet, was for a long while the only thing of Berg's available on records. And it affected most listeners as a piece of sheer gibberish, a composer's nightmare in which the various instruments were twisted and tortured mercilessly, time after time baffling the listener's desire to discover in it any intelligible contours, whether harmonic, rhythmic, or melodic. But the Violin Concerto subdues the usually frigid and austere atonal system, and makes it the medium for an instantly moving masterpiece, one that will stand as a monument to a great composer who died before his time.
Arnold Schoenberg himself once said: "I will not show you that my music is beautiful. You know it not . . . I know it." And this might be taken as the lasting and only motto against those who apply to Schoenberg and Berg criticism like that of the Musical Courier 1912.