Pierrot Lunairre

A performance of Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was given by
Artur Schnabel (piano), Boris Kroyt (violin), Gregor Piatigorsky (cello), Paul Bose (flute), Marie Gutheil-Schoder (speaker), conducted by Fritz Stiedry.

Gregor Piatigorsky was amused at the need for a conductor, given the size of the ensemble:

The half-spoken, half-sung voice indicated in the score was partly filled by Stiedry. I wondered what his function would be at the concert. Would he conduct or recite? He was a conductor, but did this piece need one? It was very intricate music for a small group, to be sure, but so are many sonatas, trios, and other chamber music works.

How would it be to prevent a virtuoso from playing unaccompanied music too freely by giving him a conductor, I thought. Imagine two people on the stage, one playing a Bach suite or Chopin polonaise and the other conducting! I laughed.

“Is it that funny?” Schnabel stopped me short.

All looked at me. “I thought of something,” I said. “I am sorry.”

“Let’s continue,” said Schnabel. (1)

Piatigorsky recalls the Berlin performance on 5 January 1924:

We knew Pierrot Lunaire perhaps more thoroughly than any piece of standard repertoire. Yet, because we were not certain how the composition would be received, we were anxious about the premiere.

We were greeted by a large audience and after our taking our places we waited for quiet to settle over the auditorium. But instead of silence we heard a sudden loud shriek, followed by a series of boos, and a commotion on one side of the hall punctuated by speeches and outcries.

Schnabel was equal to the occasion. With great gusto he launched into a circus polka, and Kroyt and I followed him. “Come on,” he encouraged, “this is a fish market.” The audience’s laughter overcame the confusion, and the atmosphere of vaudeville stopped as abruptly as it had begun. In a short time we were ready to start. Our singer-speaker, Marie Gutheil-Schoder, apparently did not recover from the incident immediately, for at the beginning she appeared almost mute. But before long we caught the true spirit of the music, and despite the danger of an over-rehearsed performance, which often turns pedestrian, we did not lose spontaneity.

Pierrot Lunaire had an enthusiastic reception, but the cause of the disturbance remained a mystery. Later, referring to the event in an article, Cesar Saerchinger called it “The Battle of the Singing Academy” but failed to make the matter clear for me. (2)

(1) Piatigorsky, Gregor (1965) Cellist: Autobiography of Gregor Piatigorsky. Da Capo Press. Cited at: Cello.org. Accessed. 1 May 2016.

(2) Ibid.