Stravinsky Meets Schoenberg
L'Histoire du Soldat and Pierrot Lunaire
Pairing Igor Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat and Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire for a chamber music evening at the Kerrytown Concert House on May 18 seems an obvious decision, given that they were written only six years apart by two of the giants of twentieth-century classical music. But in fact, the two pieces are seldom performed side by side. "These are two big, heavy hitters who are rarely in the same room at the same time," notes soprano Jennifer Goltz, who will sing the role of the narrator in Pierrot.
Besides their age, L'Histoire andPierrot have much in common: Both employ a narrator. Both are based on French texts (although Schoenberg's is set to a German translation of the original and, in this concert, Deanna Relyea will narrate L'Histoire in English). Both are early works of their composers. And, eschewing standard chamber music ensembles such as the string quartet or piano trio, Stravinsky and Schoenberg each used unique, even idiosyncratic collections of instruments. Besides Goltz's soprano, Pierrot features a piano, cello, and three players who double on violin/viola, clarinet/bass clarinet, and flute/piccolo, respectively. L'Histoire, in addition to Relyea, features violin, trumpet, bassoon, trombone, bass, and percussion.
Built on an ancient Russian form of the Faust story, Stravinsky's L'Histoire, like most versions of the tale, features a fiddle, the devil, and somebody's soul at stake. In L'Histoire there is also a book that foretells the future of the economy. Violinist extraordinaire Gabe Bolkosky, who will lead the ensemble for this concert, last teamed with Relyea to perform the piece in 2009, just months after the financial meltdown of 2008. It was hard then to escape the resonance with events in the news, and it's still easy to make the case for its relevance today. (Hedge fund managers, pay attention. There will be a test!)
Pierrot also uses an old archetype, a stock clown/hero character from Italian commedia dell'arte, and "gets to levels of emotional and descriptive detail that is very rare
in Western music," says Goltz. "There are moments of great exuberance, deep yearning, absolute longing, and despair, a homesickness you can't even fathom."
Both Stravinsky and Schoenberg were already in the process of breaking tonality's grip when they wrote these pieces, though Schoenberg was still years away from the twelve-tone compositions for which he is perhaps best known. Goltz, who wrote her doctoral thesis on Pierrot, says, "Schoenberg felt that tonality had been kind of destroyed, and there was no choice but to write in this non-tonal idiom. The last movement is--I can't really see it any other way--him saying goodbye to tonality and letting go of it."
Whether or not you're a modern music fan--chacun a son gout--this will be a rare opportunity to hear side by side two of the seminal pieces that helped define twentieth-century classical music.
[Originally published in May, 2013.]