Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Pierrot Ensemble

As one might expect, great composers generally leave their marks on history directly through the sound and craft of their music. Bach's seemingly effortless mastery of counterpoint is revered and imitated to this day, and the sheer depth of Beethoven's music casted a shadow that fell the length of the 19th century. Other composers have left their marks in slightly other way - Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel are both remembered today as among the greatest innovators and practitioners of orchestration while Joseph Haydn, despite his prolific and exceptionally remarkable output, still claims a special pedestal due to his early championing of the string quartet. And then we turn to Schoenberg.

Arnold Schoenberg's development of serial composition, also sometimes called twelve tone composition, is as important and influential as any of the innovators mentioned above. Indeed, a strong case can be made that nearly everything that happened musically in the 20th century was in some shape or form a reaction to Schoenberg's serial techniques. And while Schoenberg was certainly aware of the revolutionary implications of his serialism, he also unexpectedly left his mark on history through his choice of instrumentation for what might be considered his magnus opus, Pierrot Lunaire.

Completed in 1912, Pierrot Lunaire is a 21 poem melodrama based on a German translation of Albert Giraud's poem cycle of the same name. Written in his expressionist style, and thus pre-serial, the work is scored for an ensemble of six musicians: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and a soprano "soloist." The flute player doubles on piccolo, the clarinet player doubles on bass clarinet, and the violin player doubles on viola. And in spite of the mixed reception the piece has received since its premiere, the core quintet of instruments has since become a standard chamber configuration known simply as "The Pierrot Ensemble."

The Pierrot ensemble not only survives, but thrives today. While the flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano are still sometimes complemented with singer (as Schoenberg did), or other times percussion, dozens and dozens of composers have found the core quintet more than adequate, with our without doublings. This is perhaps most due to the ensemble's brilliant spectrum of colors and versatility, here recalling a classical piano trio, but then perhaps quickly flirting with the colors of a woodwind quintet or even full orchestra! Indeed, it is a configuration important today not only for it's historical association with Pierrot Lunaire but also for its own exceptional merit.

This year, the Dallas Festival of Modern Music is proud to feature Ars Nova Dallas, performing as a Pierrot ensemble. With a tip of the hat to the creator, we present Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire with Sprechstimme soloist Jessica Abel. And with an acknowledgment of the new life that the Pierrot ensemble has taken on through the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, we offer Joan Tower's thrilling Petroushskates and Barbara White's introspective My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon. Visit our Performance Calendar today to plan your visit!


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  2. Good to see that Pierrot is still live and kicking. I just wrote something about a week ago in my blog