Arnold Schoenberg Smackdown: Verklarte Nacht vs. Pierrot Lunaire

For someone so influential to classical music in the 20th century, Arnold Schoenberg doesn’t occupy much real estate in my music collection. Actually, he didn’t occupy any real estate until I went out of my way to download some of his works from eMusic in 2009.

I’m familiar with his protégés, Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Kronos Quartet has recorded a number of their works, and I went so far as to get the Emerson Quartet’s complete cycle of quartets by Webern.

But Schoenberg? Huge-ass gap in my listening. Portions of Pierrot Lunaire were included in my college course work, though.

Schoenberg started out writing in a more Romantic vein but grew dissatisfied with the style. He would then write works he would describe as "free atonality" before devising the 12-tone system, which gave each note in a chromatic scale equal weight.

Pierrot Lunaire comes from Schoenberg’s "free atonality" era, while Verklarte Nacht comes from his early Romantic period. Both are considered major works in his catalog.

So I found recordings on eMusic which contained these two pieces. A Naxos disc with the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Takuo Yuasa included Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2, Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene and Verklarte Nacht. A Harmonia Mundi disc with the Ensemble Musique Oblique conducted by Philippe Herreweghe with soprano Marianne Pousseur focused on Pierrot Lunaire.

Which one did I like better? Odd as it is for me to say it, but I have to go with Verklarte Nacht.

Yes, this decision flies against my general favor of chamber music over orchestral music, and someone who can dig Alfred Schnittke and Anton Webern ought to find something to appreciate in Pierrot Lunaire, right?

As an intellectual exercise, Pierrot Lunaire is certainly interesting. If I were listening intently and following along with a score, I probably could get a lot more out of it. But my listening these days is subconscious — I let music play in the background while my attention is focused elsewhere. Whatever rises above the subconscious sets the impression.

And my impression of Pierrot Lunaire is that it’s just … there. It starts, stops, jumps up, crouches down — it’s active. But it doesn’t feel like it goes anywhere. The Sprechstimme — a vocal method somewhere between singing and talking — doesn’t do the piece any favors. Schoenberg should have just left out the Stimme and made the vocal part all Sprech.

After a while, the dark insanity evoked by the piece gets tiresome.

Verklarte Nacht, on the other hand, impressed me more than I expected. Yes, it’s got that 19th Century drama going for it, but it doesn’t strike me as overwrought or bombastic. It’s pleasant but not eye-rolling-ly so. And because it’s got a tonal center, the work has a sense of direction. It moves, and oh, all right … it’s moving.

At some point, I would like to explore Schoenberg’s 12-tone works, and perhaps Pierrot Lunaire wasn’t the best entry point to the composer’s atonal works. Still, there’s something cosmically amusing about a listener with very little problem digesting atonal music preferring the Romantic works of an important figure in 20th Century classical music.