In his forward to A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess writes about the difference between story and allegory: stories are about change and growth, an allegory is a statement on the inherent nature of humanity. Especially in our adolescence, we tend towards allegory. We are prone to seeing ourselves as tragic heroes because it’s exciting and sensationalistic and full of meaning. Similarly, the characters of the Commedia Dell’arte are treated as archetypical forces engaging in dramatic allegory, not human personalities with depth and nuance.
Pierrot is typically depicted as self-indulgent, touched by madness, and expressively naive, someone who sees grandiose drama in everything. But in this story, it is only his starting point. In our interpretation, Harlequin and Pierrot, two characters in the Commedia dell’arte often depicted as companions, are actually the same person; the story chronicles how Pierrot eventually came to be Harlequin, who acts as narrator of his own journey. Rather than make a statement about any particular aspect of human nature, I wanted to show that change is an inevitable part of our living experience and that Pierrot eventually grows out of his tragedy and becomes is best possible self. The eternally depressed and whimsically mad clown might make for great allegory, but it leaves out a realistic and always changing human element.
The piece is introduced by Harlequin who sets the stage and creates the magic of theater to tell his story. His journey begins as the lonely Pierrot, trying his hardest to fit in, but ultimately rejected. We then see him go back to his typical solitude, pining away in unrequited love for the moon, living a rich inner life, romanticizing his fantasies and past memories.
In his melodramatic imagination, he becomes intoxicated with the power of the moon, which leads to the second part of the story away from innocence into rebellion. Pierrot embarks on a grandiose caper, sneaking into the cellar to steal a bottle of absinthe, which leads to a very real, and darker form of intoxication. With it comes a madness and nightmarish visions. Pierrot wakes up and finds himself alone in the street. He hears the organ of a nearby church and feels called into the sanctuary, but everything has become grotesque and distorted, turned from holiness to blasphemy.
The climax of the piece occurs when Pierrot figuratively sacrifices himself on the altar of the church, leaving both his melancholy and madness behind. Escaping out the back of the church, he is once again encased in moonlight where he finds a peace in the no-place between his former life and the one he has yet to begin. He eventually comes upon a lake with the moon overhead. He sees a boat, and a city in the distance across the water and decides to leave his current life and go to Bergamo. The piece ends with an epilogue, an acknowledgement from the chorus that Pierrot is a part of all of us; that we share his madness and melancholy and loneliness, but also have the same potential for change and grow as we pursue our own life’s path.
Approaching this text was a challenge because of the cultural baggage that accompanies even the name of the work due to how seminal Schoenberg’s setting has become. Since starting on the project, I have been regularly asked if I make references to Schoenberg’s work, but ultimately I have chosen to purposefully ignore his music entirely and focus on the poems themselves as the sole source of inspiration.
Giraud’s poetry is rich with vivid imagery, potent symbols, and lyrical writing. Gregory Richter, the translator of these poems, notes in the forward of his book that there are a limited number of repeating symbols and motifs in the collection of poems, and that each ones seems to be tied to a specific color palette. I decided early on that the limited and consistent use of color would be a guiding principle for the harmonic content of the work. Each color was given its own primary harmony, a specific chord for Green, Black, Red, etc. Similarly, I wrote a melodic motif for each symbol that referenced the corresponding colors associated with each symbol. The Moon motif, for instance, was derived from the Black and White harmonies. The Intoxication motif a combination of Green (absinthe) and Red (wine). The Red harmony was also used for the more bloody imagery, but with a different motif than when wine is referenced.
While this lent a certain harmonic consistency throughout the work, it was ultimately the story itself that drove how the music would be written. The perspective of the poems is constantly shifting, some coming in the first person, which I interpreted to be Pierrot, while other are written from the perspective of a third-person narrator (perhaps Harlequin). It was never my intention to set every poem to music, rather I used some of the poems as the lyrics for songs, generally those in the first person, and others were looked at as stage directions and descriptors of the story. While I didn’t achieve my original intention of using every poem in the story, I did create the narrative using most of the poems in the first 2/3rds of the set, up until Pierrot’s Departure.
After that moment, the poetry takes a turn and features a very different, crueler, and more sadistic Pierrot. It may be that in the future I’ll return to this material and see if I can uncover what I see as a mysterious aspect of the poetry, but for now I hope you enjoy watching this story unfold as much as I have enjoyed putting it together.