Moondrunk for a Century: A History of the Pierrot Ensemble

Moondrunk for a Century: A History of the Pierrot Ensemble

As we approach the Pierrot Lunaire centennial, its instrumentation, once reflective of Viennese weltschmerz, has been internationalized, turned timeless, and endured both modernism and postmodernism. Briefly tracing its legacy reveals a story of artists grappling with tradition as well as practical realities.

Written By

Will Robin

Hanns Eisler’s Palmström—for speaker, flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet, violin (doubling on viola), and cello—is easily mistakable for a better-known work. Thirteen years after the premiere of Pierrot Lunaire, at the request of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, Eisler composed a companion piece for the same instrumentation (minus piano) as that modernist masterpiece. Pierrot itself is a deeply ambiguous work, full of biting satire and mocking seriousness; Palmström takes this a step further, parodying the parody. The forty-five second “Notturno” mimics the bloodrush of Schoenberg’s “Galgenlied” (“Gallows Song”), but with comically low stakes:

Palmström takes paper from his drawer.
And spreads it artfully round the room.
And after he’s made pellets out of it.
And spread it artfully, and at night.
So that, when he suddenly awakes in the night,
He hears the pellets rustle and a secret terror
Strikes him
Of the spectre of wrapping-paper pellets.

Besides being a fine bit of Second Viennese School homage, Palmström is an early participant in a hundred-year musical heritage, one still unfolding today: the Pierrot ensemble. Composers from Philip Glass to Karlheinz Stockhausen to Missy Mazzoli have all written music utilizing slight variations on Schoenberg’s original Pierrot Lunaire instrumentation. Some grapple with the legacy of Pierrot Lunaire head-on; others creatively misread the work. Many ignore Schoenberg’s piece entirely and take the instrumentation as a given—a modern updating of the string quartet or piano trio.

As we approach the Pierrot Lunaire centennial, its instrumentation, once reflective of Viennese weltschmerz, has been internationalized, turned timeless, and endured both modernism and postmodernism. Briefly tracing its legacy, as this essay will do, reveals a story of artists grappling with modernism and tradition, but also with practical realities. The Pierrot ensemble acts as a panorama of the musical 20th century, and one that bridges us into the 21st—earlier this year, the Pierrot-derived group eighth blackbird took home their second Grammy.

Pierrot Lunaire Excerpt

This excerpt from the score of “Madonna,” the sixth song in Arnold Schoenberg’s 1912 Pierrot Lunaire, shows the first occurrence of a quintet consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. It has happened many times since then. (The public domain score of Pierrot Lunaire is downloadable from IMSLP.)

Let’s begin at the beginning. We traditionally think of the Pierrot ensemble as a miniature orchestra—the grand Romantic afflatus stripped down to its bare bones—but Schoenberg actually did the opposite in Pierrot Lunaire. He originally planned the work, a melodrama comprised of 21 short texts by Albert Giraud, for speaker and piano. In the process of composing, Schoenberg asked actress Albertine Zehme to add a clarinet—a reference back to Brahms’s chamber music, if anything—then a violin, a flute and, finally, a cello.

Maximizing the musicians’ potential, Schoenberg requires the flute to double on piccolo, the clarinet on bass clarinet, and the violin on viola. He utilizes the novel instrumentation in various, smaller groupings throughout the work, and the combinations match the spirit of each song—the hooting piccolo and clarinet of “Der Dandy,” the sickly, limpid solo flute of “Der Kranke Mond.” And if Pierrot Lunaire’s Pierrot ensemble is a miniature orchestra, it is a miniature cabaret orchestra, adding a populist snarl to Schoenberg’s hyper-chromaticism.

Pierrot Lunaire premiered on October 12, 1912, and immediately caused a sensation. Schoenberg knew he had a hit, and the work had a run in Berlin before the musicians embarked on a five-week tour of twelve cities. Artistic responses followed quickly. Sabine Feisst has documented the work’s impact in America, which was immediate: Universal Edition published a pocket score in 1914, which inspired Henry Cowell’s 1915 Red Silence, a Japanese-influenced monodrama for speaker, flute, violin, cello, and piano. Charles Griffes followed suit with the similarly exoticist Sho-jo and Kairn of Koridwen of 1917; evidently, when American composers heard sprechstimme, they thought druids and samurai.[1]

Back in Vienna, Schoenberg sought out companion pieces for the Pierrot instrumentation to fill out an evening concert: thus, Palmström, but also Anton Webern’s re-orchestration of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony for a Pierrot contingent (1922-23). With Webern’s piece, we see one of the earliest examples of an instrumental Pierrot ensemble, with the role of the speaker removed—a precedent (though a virtually unknown one) for many later works which would abstract the concept of the ensemble entirely, removing the elements of melodrama to focus strictly on the possibilities of the instrumental combinations.

For the next several decades, works for Pierrot ensemble pop up throughout Europe and America. The American premiere of Pierrot, in 1923, was a major event with a wide impact. Cowell felt the Schoenbergian influence again, leading to his 1924 Four Combinations for Three Instruments (playing off of Schoenberg’s shuffling of instruments); Carl Ruggles wrote his Vox Clamans in Deserto, for mezzo-soprano and a more expansive chamber ensemble than that of Pierrot Lunaire.

Then there are early examples of the Pierrot ensemble as a convenience, a choice made as much for financial practicalities and logistics as artistic vision. In a fascinating article published in the volume British Music and Modernism, 1895-1960, Christopher Dromey discusses re-discovering the Pierrot ensembles of a young Benjamin Britten, who apparently “reveled in the romanticism” of the original work, and scored several films for Britain’s General Post Office Film Unit for its instruments.[2] His 1936 score for the film Dinner Hour may be the first instance of what today is called the “Pierrot-Plus,” with Pierrot instruments augmented by percussion. The day-to-day reality of the Film Unit meant that Britten often gathered random assemblages of musicians—Pierrot as pick-up band.

Still, these are not the pieces you think of when you think Pierrot ensemble (if you even knew they existed). They remain outside the repertoires of the major Pierrot groups, like the Da Capo Chamber Players, eighth blackbird, and the Fires of London. The real cottage industry of Pierrot music would come with the codification of the ensemble, the transformation of an unusual instrumentation into an institution.

Fast-forward to 1967. In London, young composers Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies banded together with several instrumentalists to form the Pierrot Players. Their first concert consisted of Pierrot Lunaire, Maxwell Davies’s Antechrist, and Birtwistle’s Monodrama, with the new pieces scored for Schoenberg’s configuration as well as percussion (the true dawn of Pierrot-Plus). Reflecting back on the ensemble in 1987, Maxwell Davies said that:

The Pierrot Players were founded because the performances Harrison Birtwistle and I were receiving of our music in the sixties were less than satisfactory—under-rehearsed and uncommitted….There emerged a group of friends, willing to spend many hours of unpaid time with two inexperienced conductors, rehearsing difficult new works. Thanks to The Pierrot Players/Fires of London I learned the basics of instrumentation as never before, and the rudiments of theatrical craft—not to mention, out of frightening necessity, how to conduct….The group has been the most important music experience of my life to date. [3]

The founders felt that tying their legacy back to Schoenberg would also connect them to Schoenberg’s own tradition of new music concerts in Vienna’s short-lived Society for Private Musical Performances. Here, Pierrot becomes a kind of foundational text, the modern moment around which one can fashion an ensemble to progress Britain’s contemporary music scene.

The Pierrot Players’ seminal early work is Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, a heaving gloss on Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire swapping out moonstruck female reciter for crazed baritone (and adding percussion). Like that of Pierrot, the instrumental ensemble acts as a psychological manifestation of the work’s insane protagonist. Maxwell Davies takes it a step further, noting that the instrumentalists are “projections stemming from the King’s words and music, becoming incarnations of facets of the King’s own psyche.” (The musicians performed from within cages at the premiere.)

Where Pierrot Lunaire built upon the antiquated device of melodrama, Maxwell Davies crafts a full-on pastiche, juxtaposing several hundred years of historical references. The instrumentation becomes a kind of desiccated relic—the flute and clarinet mimic wind consorts, while the piano bangs out a “smoochy” country dance; the baritone quotes Handel’s Messiah over a Baroque harpsichord (yes, Maxwell Davies ups the ante on Schoenberg’s doubling, giving us a dual-duty keyboardist), singing alternately “in style” and “like a horse.” Figurative deconstruction, as the king’s madness reaches its forte, becomes literal destruction: Maxwell Davies indicates that the violin should “break apart.”

This maximalizing snapshot is only one aspect of the Pierrot ensemble’s grand postwar history. With the inception of the Pierrot Players (disbanded and reformed as The Fires of London under Maxwell Davies’s direction in 1970), as well as other groups around the same period—the Da Capo Chamber Players in 1970, Amsterdam’s Schoenberg Ensemble in 1972, the New York New Music Ensemble in 1975—the format is set in stone. As those groups actively commissioned and encouraged young composers, the Pierrot ensemble transitioned from a scattered tradition of Schoenberg-inspired works to a key player in new music.

With this shift, we see works emerge which tiptoe around Pierrot Lunaire while utilizing its core instrumentation—anyone writing for the ensemble was aware of Schoenberg’s piece, but many composers wished to avoid the association of Viennese modernism, abstracting the instruments from their Expressionist origins.

We see this in the slew of new works that accompanied the premiere of Eight Songs for a Mad King in 1969. For the 80th birthday of Alfred A. Kalmus, who ran the London wing of Universal Edition and championed contemporary music, twelve composers wrote pieces for the Pierrot Players in his honor. The result, A Garland for Dr. K, is a series of short, mostly pointillist experiments by Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, Bernard Rands, and others for the Pierrot set-up. (Berio’s The Modification and Instrumentation of a Famous Hornpipe as a Merry and Altogether Sincere Homage to Uncle Alfred, a goofy riff on Purcell, stands out among the pack as sounding particularly not like post-war Pierrot ensemble music.)

That these works stood alongside the Maxwell Davies shows the burgeoning interest in music that took advantage of Pierrot Lunaire’s instrumentation without reprising Schoenbergian melodrama. (None utilize a vocalist.) This echoes, loosely, what Boulez wrote in his famous 1952 polemic “Schoenberg is Dead”: that the late composer’s music, despite its explorations of new musical languages, displayed “the most ostentatious and obsolete romanticism.”[4] A Garland scrubs Pierrot of its hyper-Expressionist roots, putting it in line with the pure, mathematical abstraction of the postwar generation.

Pierrot, of course, did not die. Works utilizing the ensemble to back a mad narrator coexist alongside ones that treat the instruments as a modern day string quartet. As we move towards the end of the century, this trend continues. Elliott Carter’s Triple Duo, a 1983 BBC commission for The Fires of London, is a classic example of Schoenberg avoidance. A review of the premiere noted that Carter “averred that Pierrot Lunaire and the legacy of expressionism had little importance for him as he was dreaming up fresh deployments of [Maxwell] Davies’s personalized, Schoenberg-inspired ensemble.”[5] Carter’s skittish instrumental writing is an entirely different kind of mania from Pierrot—it begins with a Haydn-esque joke, with the instrumentalists pretending to warm up. (His divisions of the sextet into duos, though, does echo Schoenberg’s chamber-groups-within-the-chamber-group concept.)

Carter seems to be deliberately stepping around Pierrot. Other composers forget it entirely, treating Pierrot’s ensemble just like any other. Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life 2 makes a Pierrot-Plus ensemble the miniature orchestral accompaniment to a solo viola.

Joan Tower, who co-founded the Da Capo Chamber Players and served as its original pianist, has written several Pierrot-scored works that have no particular connection back to Schoenberg. Tower re-arranged the 1977 Amazon for full orchestra (Amazon II), indicating that her original Pierrot instrumentation may have been merely a practical matter; her 1980 Petroushkates, another Da Capo work, pays homage not to Schoenberg but to Stravinsky (along with, strangely enough, ice skating).

These two pieces also demonstrate that there’s nothing odd about writing a tonal Pierrot piece—we shouldn’t forget about the Da Capo commissions of Philip Glass and John Harbison. Just because Schoenberg wasn’t terribly lush doesn’t mean that his ensemble can’t be.

The Pierrot parody genre, launched by Eisler, trudged on as well. Donald Martino, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Notturno is a classic example of postwar Pierrot ensemble music, ends his From The Other Side (for flute, piano, cello, and percussion) with a movement titled “Das magische Kabarett des Doktor Schönberg.” A tango slides into the opening piano lick of Pierrot Lunaire’s “Mondestrunken,” and a czardas erupts into a section titled “The Wrath of A.S.” with shouts of “Nein!” under the piccolo trumpet solo from Petroushka. In The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams mocks an Austrian woman by accompanying her sprechstimme testimonial with a Pierrot-esque subgroup in the orchestra.

Perhaps the best bookend to the Pierrot tradition is Martin Bresnick’s 2002 My Twentieth Century. Another Da Capo commission, My Twentieth Century is what Bresnick calls a “descendant of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire—without the chanteuse and in a more vernacular musical and poetic idiom.”[6] Its title is a sly annexation of musical modernism, utilizing the Schoenbergian ensemble for an alternate history of the past hundred years. A laid-back series of piano chords opens the piece, soon joined by gauzy strings repeating short, postminimalist patterns. The musicians themselves alternately intone Tom Andrews’s text: “I played hopscotch in the twentieth century. I lived in a country of fireflies in the twentieth century.” Just as the music steps around modernism, the text transforms the 20th century from world-historical to personal, giving weight to individual actions instead of grand narratives. Pierrot Lunaire is a piece of extreme economy and brevity, doing the maximum with the minimum; Bresnick transforms economy into expanse, suggesting in his open harmonies the sparse lyricism of Appalachian Spring. The instruments blend, rather than prick.

And where is the Pierrot ensemble today? Its most famous proponent is, of course, eighth blackbird. Timothy Weiss, who heads the Contemporary Music Ensemble at Oberlin, brought together several conservatory students in 1996 to tackle the more difficult works of the Pierrot lineage—pieces like Martino’s Notturno or Charles Wuorinen’s New York Notes. The repertoire of eighth blackbird quickly expanded to include pieces like Joan Tower’s Noon Dance, Wendell Logan’s Moments, and Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Bairns of Brugh. The blackbirds even tackled one of the earliest Pierrot configurations—Webern’s arrangement of the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony.

This origin story points out a crucial aspect of today’s Pierrot tradition: the ensemble did not perform Pierrot Lunaire for the first five years of its existence. Whereas the Pierrot Players centered their repertory around Schoenberg’s piece, by the end of the 20th century, Schoenberg’s ensemble stood on its own, independent of the work that launched it into existence. Asked why the Pierrot configuration has endured so long, eighth blackbird’s flutist Nicholas Photinos wrote in an email:

Many reasons: it’s a great, small, economical mini-orchestra. It can have the sweep of an orchestra, the groove of a rock band, yet is small enough to be a finely tuned sports car like a string quartet. I think one of that orchestration’s greatest assets, and what sets it apart from other standard small ensembles like string quartets and woodwind and brass quintets, is that there is so much variety of timbre, so the ear never gets bored. Though of course, a composer can also write in a way to achieve a great blend across the group.

Today, eighth blackbird tours Pierrot Lunaire regularly in a theatrical production with soprano Lucy Shelton.

Their commissions include works as varied as Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, Steve Mackey’s Slide, and Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire—a concerto for Pierrot-Plus plus orchestra.

Most of these new Pierrot works don’t tackle the historical legacy directly, and many have that rock-band groove. In 2012, the burden of Schoenberg’s status as founding father seems to have been lifted. Not every string quartet needs to refer back to Haydn; not every Pierrot ensemble needs to refer back to the Second Viennese School. Instead, Pierrot Lunaire hovers in the background—in its centennial year, the moonstruck clown has taken a back seat in that finely tuned sports car.



1. See Sabine Feisst, “Echoes of Pierrot Lunaire in American Music,” in James K. Wright and Alan M. Gillmor, eds., Schoenberg’s Chamber Music, Schoenberg’s World (Hillsdale: Pendragon Press, 2009), pp. 173-192.

2. Christopher Dromey, “Benjamin Britten’s ‘Pierrot Ensembles,” in Matthew Riley, ed., British Music and Modernism, 1895-1960 (London: Ashgate, 2010), p. 230. Dromey has written a full-length study of the Pierrot ensemble tradition, which will be published later this year by Plubago.

3. Peter Maxwell Davies, quoted in Grenvile Hacox, “The composer-performer relationship in the music of Peter Maxwell Davies,” in Kenneth Gloag and Nicholas Jones ed., Peter Maxwell Davies Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 200.

4. Pierre Boulez, quoted in Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007), p. 394.

5. Paul Driver, “‘Triple Duo’ and ‘Image, Reflection, Shadow,’” Tempo 146 (September, 1983): p. 53.

6. Martin Bresnick, Program Notes for My Twentieth Century” accessed from Martin Bresnick’s website on May 4, 2012.

Many thanks to Frank J. Oteri, who has taken on the herculean task of compiling a massive and comprehensive list of works which utilize the Pierrot ensemble or its variations.