Some remarks on Pierrot Lunaire

My deep fascination with the figure of Pierrot lunaire created by Albert Giraud in his 50 poems Pierrot Lunaire: rondels bergamasques arose from a meeting with music of Arnold Schönberg during rehearsals of a university production of the piece (title role played by unforgettable Anna Radziejewska). During the arduous process of creation – while restlessly breaking down the score, time and time over again drowning in the deluge of polyphonic constellations, – I could barely figure out the multifaceted message of the work. It can only be experienced at the fullest, as I must openly confess, from within this pulsating organism of an ensemble performing the piece. This music, excessive and unsettling in its character, filled me in turns with ecstatic awe and quivering disgust. This morbid – in my opinion – blend of beauty and ugliness, sacrosanctity and sacrilege, naïveté and caustic wit has regularly induced my aesthetical indigestion outside of the rehearsal room. Preparation of the staging among such extraordinarily talented colleagues was a genuine joy, we all humbly accepted what the composer had prepared for our ears (and souls). For we are taught not to be picky, after all we come from the generation of performers that are able to play anything, always ready for any challenge laying ahead of us, no matter our personal predilections or prejudices. Even though Schönberg came against our aesthetic ideals, it was a pleasure to experience this music with our open hearts, to look for new definitions of beauty, to cross our boundaries, to even merely touch instinctively the madness of the composer coupled with the insanity of the poet by whose work the former was smitten.

Coming back home from a rehearsal, gazing at the luminous full moon (what else!), I’ve finally grasped the dread and horror of Giraud’s poetry. It came to me like a bolt out of the blue. Until then I meandered through nooks and crannies of author’s semantics and imagery without success (Schönberg worked with the German translation by Otto Hartleben and I myself – relying on a slippery ground of my distant acquaintance with this tongue – used a vague Polish rendition). Pierrot in accord with his Italian blood was an incorrigible romantic, an idealist, a naive and empathetic soul sensitive to the core. In Giraud’s verses Pierrot is called “lunar” (lunaire) exactly because of the gloomy symbolism of Earth’s own natural satellite – the association with intuition, deceitfulness and insanity, concealed instincts, sin, inspiration, unconsciousness and magic. In Greek mythology it was Artemis who was the goddess of the moon, her twin brother Apollo ruled the sun. To get deeper into this imagery: Sun is the light, reason and rationality – everything that once was attributed to men; on the other hand everything that had to do with darkness, death and mystery was of womankind (that is why to our southern neighbours moon is a female: in French, which descended from Latin, it is feminine – “la lune”; in German it already is masculine – “der Mond”; and in Polish the word “księżyc” – stemming from “książe” (prince) or “ksiądz” (priest) – has its own completely different connotations), not without a reason the main role of Schönberg’s melodrama is given to a woman…

Moonstruck Pierrot is a combination of a naive creature without a sense of self that is bearing the weight of existential crises – with crazed, unhinged, dark domain of instinct and bestial nature. Pierrot lunaire as a product of his times is then the archetype of an artist getting more and more strongly and oppressively suffocated by the society. As we all know, the stronger a drive is repressed, the more dire the perversion. Pierrot then celebrates black masses (“With a gesture of benediction / He shows to the frightened souls / The dripping red Host: / His heart—in bloody fingers— / For a hideous Communion!”), fantasizes about death (“The scraggy harlot / With a long neck [i.e. a scaffold – AŚ] / Will be his last Lover”), desecrates corpses (“…with his drinking companions, / Pierrot descends—to steal / (…) /— There stare from the coffins / Red, princely rubies”), makes ironic remarks in ghastly manner (“Then with his thumb he stuffs / His genuine Turkish tobacco / Into the shiny head of Cassander, / Whose cries pierce the air!”), mocks his lover himself being unable to love (“The moon, the spiteful mocker, / Imitates with its beams— / Knitting needles, gleam and shine”).

Cynicism of Pierrot knows no boundaries: he commits all kinds of despicable acts, he lacks conscience and becomes his own distorted reflection. Perhaps he is plagued at times with nightmares (“The moon, a gleaming scimitar / On a black silk pillow. / Spectrally large—sends down threats / Through the sorrow-dark night”) and can’t confront his own despair, his emptiness and his tormented soul (“You are dying of an inconsolable sorrow of love, / Dying of longing, totally suffocated, / You moon, gloomy and sick to death / There on the black cushion of die sky”), but his soul will be shrouded in darkness forever (“Dark, black giant moths / Killed the brightness of the sun”). In the end he gets lost in delusion, in the fantasy about lovely childhood years spent in Bergamo. What’s curious about this is the fact that Schönberg, just like the title character, himself being sensitive to such an articulate imagery, comes in the last scene back to tonality, the impossible reality (“l freely observe the dear world / And my dreams travel into blissful distances…” and earlier: “O ancient fragrance from the age of fairy tales, / Again you intoxicate my senses!”).

The story of Moonstruck Pierrot doesn’t quench our thirst, it just leaves us in a roles of silent witnesses to the tragedy impossible for us to comprehend. Is such high sensitivity a bliss or a devil’s trick? Thomas Mann in Doktor Faustus unfolds before our eyes a terrifying vision of hell where artists with subtle tastes and sharp, lofty minds are held in high esteem (“It is not so easy to get into hell, we should long have been suffering for lack of space”). Hell, in that sense, would be an incessant cycling between two extremes – eternal heat and eternal cold, a never-ending frenzied dance.

What would Pierrot see staring into the void of his own soul? How great of a torture can his existence be? Why does he fail in his attempt to escape his mercilessly determined fate when trying to wipe away a white spot of moonlight from his black coat, just like Lady Macbeth did with the blood left after the crime (“He wipes and wipes it but—can’t wipe it away! / And so he walks onward, swollen with venom. / Rubs and rubs until early in the morning— / A white spot of die bright moonlight“). Is he burdened with his identity, the inner discrepancies which force him to deny his own nature? What is that irremovable distinctiveness which makes him a secluded individual, so incapable of love, someone cold, disagreeable and secretive, troubled with unbearable inevitability of existence, loathing the life and yet clinging to it so tightly? What would we see if we opened the gates to Pierrot’s soul? Guilt perhaps, grudge, despair, or maybe anger and insatiable ambition, disillusionment with life? The fear of death in all of its forms, being a passive witness to the fleeting of every single moment: a curious stare of a child, smell of beloved’s hair, the painful tension of the dominant chord, the play of colours in Rembrandt’s canvases.

The only people that fear these are those who can’t stand the pain of passing, who experience the beauty of these moments with all their essence, unable to accept the instability of matter and its constant flow. One may negate the nature of reality with all her heart, rebel against it, scoff at its inexplicable brutality that touches the innermost core, and act as if it doesn’t concern her, go into denial – slip into illusions that our mind is a master of – irony, mockery, apathy and any kind of self-harm. At the bottom of Pandora’s box there is, however, a feeling of existential lacking which cannot be compared to anything, this infinite unfillable emptiness, a biologically-determined instinct – eternal drive to satisfy one’s needs, a black hole devouring life matter that multiplies until it finally eats itself up. This endless void, this fragmentation into billions of pieces, this land of the numbness, of expressionlessness, a bottomless abyss – maybe that’s the proper account of torments Pierrot went through and from which he ran away into the place of insanity and delusion?

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me…” – Pascal wrote. So it’s not only Pierrot who had felt this anxiety. One can protect herself from madness only through soothing warmth of faith and hope that the world is not a barbaric machine determined for self-annihilation driven by egoism fuelling it. Pascal comforts us: “[this] infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself”. Nonetheless you have to strive for this grace unremittingly, redemption requires great courage and eagerness to confront one’s own sense of emptiness, your inner chaos, bondage and fall (“How to ask the void about its voidness (I WILL ANSWER ANYTHING, / BUT YOU WON’T HEAR A WORD)” – Stanisław Barańczak).

And so it seems that Schopenhauer, with his completely pessimistic overlook on the human condition, was right: art brings relief in suffering, it helps to transform it to something incomparably bigger than us, it extends the perspective focused on physicality by the divinity of human experience.

If only Moonstruck Pierrot could hear us from the depths of his helplessness, then maybe we could console him singing “until earth goes on, until it is that way or the other…” we still can be redeemed.

Translated by Jakub Strużyński

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