Though Arnold Schoenberg renounced his brief but fruitful pentatonic period, his remaining sketches from that time provide valuable insight into the psychological effect of Germany’s larger socioeconomic transformation before the first world war. Musicologists have recently unearthed cylinder recordings from the first reading of his initial sketches for Pierrot Lunaire (Op. 12). Originally titled Pierrot l’Ane, it is a little-known fact that the piece was composed during that discarded pentatonic period. Inspired by the incidental mistakes of the musicians’ sight reading, his revised version incorporated the added chromaticism and became the Pierrot Lunaire that we know and love.
Schoenberg’s development of the dodecaphonic system is well documented, but his transitional pentatonic period is less commonly taught. Before settling on all 12 pitch classes as his theoretical harmonic palette, he experimented with other numerical bases. In the same Francophilic spirit that inspired his use of Giraud’s poetry, Schoenberg’s enthusiasm for Parisian composers like Ravel and Debussy influenced his choice of pan-diatonic pentatonic and heptatonic systems based on the interface of the piano keyboard. These relatively simple harmonic schema were treated to the same sorts of row transformations that became hallmarks of later serial compositions.
For the first time, you can now listen to those original cylinder recordings of Schoenberg’s Pierrot l’Ane online! Though the instrumental ensemble is unknown, the singer is Albertine Zehme, who premiered the finished piece at the Choralion-Saal. Schoenberg officially disowned the recordings once the piece was developed into Pierrot Lunaire (Op. 12), but these historically important documents offer a glimpse of the composer’s then-nascent iconoclastic musical revolution.