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'A multicoloured Alphabet': rediscovering Albert Giraud's Pierrot Lunaire

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Journaltwentieth-century music
DatePublished - Mar 2007
Issue number1
Volume4
Number of pages24
Pages (from-to)97-121
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

Albert Giraud’s cycle of fifty rondels bergamasques, Pierrot Lunaire (1884), famously became, in Otto Erich Hartleben’s German translation, the basis of Schoenberg’s Op. 21 (1912). But for many decades the work of the Belgian poet was either straightforwardly denigrated for its anachronism and ‘mediocrity’ (Boulez), or at least declared inferior to its ‘vivid, Angst-filled transformation’ (Youens) in Hartleben’s hands. This article questions some widely held beliefs concerning the original Pierrot and its subsequent reworking. The claim that Schoenberg’s selection and reorganization of the poems imposed logic and order on an otherwise jumbled collection is found to be belied by the striking narrative coherence of Giraud’s original sequence, which is unified by a clearly defined set of symbols. Meanwhile, Hartleben’s putative ‘infidelity’ to Giraud is challenged by evidence both internal (his careful preservation of the rondel structure) and contextual (an esteem for his Belgian contemporary manifested in further poetic homages). While there is no doubt that Hartleben’s translations distance the poems from their background in Parnassian aesthetics – omitting crucial references to Brueghel, Shakespeare, Watteau, and the painter and lithographer Adolphe Willette – it is Giraud himself who deserves the credit for the most strikingly memorable images later absorbed into the expressionistic milieu of Schoenberg’s melodrama.

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