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An Analysis of Large Structures found within


Movements of Pierrot Lunaire by Arnold Schoenberg



Copyright (c) 2003 by Paul Nelson, all rights reserved.



Pierrot Lunaire, by Arnold Schoenberg, is made up of 21 short movements, most of which are between one and two minutes long. When discussing large-scale structures in Pierrot Lunaire, both the number of movements and the average length of each movement have interesting implications.

First, because there are so many movements, Schoenberg is able to experiment. As such, there are a wide variety of structures displayed in the movements of Pierrot Lunaire. Some structures are quite traditional, such as an ABACA "rondo" style structure with multiple returns, or simple rounded binary and ternary structures. Other structures are more ambiguous; sometimes there is no return to initial material and sometimes there appears to be no "structure" at all, as is the case where there is a single uninterrupted statement.

Second, because each movement is so short, this puts limits on the types of structures which can be created. The structures are simple and usually consist of only three short sections. Most movements have little or no clearly developmental passages, where material is worked and explored. In fact, many times a movement will introduce new material with no sense of "return" at all. These forms, like "A A' B" are often quite dramatic in that the listener will feel a sense of dramatic motion through the movement. One feels that the character of Pierrot ends up someplace different than where he started.

Third, it is interesting to look at the ways in which Schoenberg delineates different sections within a movement and how sections can "refer back" to previous material. Sometimes returns are identified by melodic material, but just as often the ear depends on texture, motivic repetition, and overall "intensity" to the make these connections.

Finally, when considering the entire dramatic shape of Pierrot, the movements come together, each one adding to dramatic motion to the whole.

The concentration in this paper will be on the larger brush strokes in Pierrot, namely the phrases, textures, sections, and movements. Very little attention has been paid to individual harmonies, melodies, or motivic fragments.

The Graph Notation

The following is an example of the graphs which are used to illustrate structure throughout this paper:

#1 - Mondestrunken

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|               X            X           |



structure:|A                 B     A   C      A    |

In this graph, measures are shown on the scale across the top. "maj divsn" stands for Major Divisions, the (typically three) major sections within a movement. Note that this will typically line up with the "purpose" but not necessarily with the "material".

"purpose" represents the primary musical reason of each measure of music. The letters used here are as follows:  s = statement, i = introductory, n = momentary interlude or interruption, c = cadential extension or ending 'tag', x = other kind of extensional material, d = coda or codetta, t = transitional, and g = gesture or motion.

"material" is a letter from 'a' to 'f' which represents the material used in the movement. Where two measures have the same letter, then they are said to use the same "material". Note that "material" is a very flexible concept for the purposes of this paper. Often, two sections will not actually use the same notes, melodic or motivic fragments but will still be judged to contain the same "material". This will be the case if two sections sound similar because they use the same musical texture and instrumentation. Sometimes an "x" will be used for a section which is purely gestural and with no strong identity of it's own.

Finally, the "structure" line shows the large-structure letters which I have assigned. Typically these will correlate to the major divisions of the piece, but not always.

"Rondo" Structure:  ABACA

The structure ABACA, most similar to the traditional "rondo" form, is the one structure which matches up with the poetry. The first two lines of each poem re-occur at the end of the second stanza, and the first line of the poem comes back at the very end.

Only two movements in Pierrot have a clear ABACA structure: "Mondestrunken" and "O alter Duft." Both of these movements contain clear and direct statements of the main idea (melody or motive) which then reoccur multiple times to unify the movement. Interestingly, these are the first and last movements of the piece, providing some additional structure to the work as a whole: the two most stable movements with the clearest structures create stabilizing points at both ends of the entire cycle.

#1 - Mondestrunken

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|               X            X           |



structure:|A                 B     A   C      A    |

In Mondestrunken, the opening 7-note motive along with the relaxed voice part clearly identifies the return of 'a' material within the movement. Wherever this motive is obscured or grotesquely transformed, new material was declared (for example, in measure 29 the motive occurs but is obscured by the strident piano and voice).

#21 – O alter Duft

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|             X    X          |



structure:|A     B      A    C      A   |

Here the 'a' material is very clear in the melody of the voice part in the first three bars of the movement. It then comes back in the voice in measure 15 and in the strings in measure 26. There is not a great deal of contrast in this movement; most of it is romantic and flowing. But it does seem to wander "off topic" at times (mm 7-13 and mm 21-25), and these are the parts where the 'B' and 'C' sections have been declared.

Rounded Binary and Ternary Movements

Many movements in Pierrot have a very simple "ABA" structure, where the music, texture, or general "feeling" of the opening music in the movement is used to round out the movement. These movements are "rounded binary" if the middle B section is somehow dependent on the A section (i.e. stitched into the flow of the piece or using some small part of the A material). They become "ternary" if the B section is a wholly independent section (only really the case in #15, "Heimweh").

There are three ways in which an 'A' section can come back to round out the movement. The first, and clearest, is a direct quote from the earlier music. This occurs in #10 "Raub," #14 "Die Kreuze," and #20 "Heimfahrt". However, in all of these cases Schoenberg only quotes a very brief passage from the beginning of the movement which has the effect of "bookends" around a movement rather than a strong A B A return. Perhaps this is dictated by the short length of the movements (i.e. a longer return would have been possible given more time). #8 "Nacht" is similar in that the dark ending (mm24-25) feels like a "bookend" to the dark beginning, but this time it is done primarily through register, rather than a recognizable quote of the earlier material.

The second method is a return where the character and style of the music are so similar in texture and feeling to the beginning that it is very nearly a direct quote. This is the case for #13 "Enthauptung", #15 "Heimweh", and #19 "Serenade".

Finally, #4 "Eine blasse Wäscherin" and #16 "Gemeinheit" both obscure the return to A even further. In the case of #4, the notes are different, but the oscillating, languid quality remains the same. In #16, the return is a mixture of two previous types of material, carrying along qualities of both.

#4 – Eine blasse Wäscherin

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|        X  X      |



structure:|    A   B  A      |

The 'a' material is made up of oscillating, homophonic motion in the instruments. While the return to A is clear, it does not come across as a direct quote, but rather as a return to the languid quality from the introduction.

#8 – Nacht

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|          X     X         |



structure:|A         B       (A)     |

In Nacht, the opening material (the passacaglia) is stated clearly in the low piano and low instruments. The B section is more flowing with an almost spectral horror to it. In the (A) section, the 'a' material returns, but transformed into interlocking, descending, and oscillating thirds. The deep, dark ending (mm24-25) recalls the opening introduction before a final stinger.

#10 – Raub

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|    X   X    X     |



structure:|(i) A   A'   B    A|

After a short introduction, "Raub" presents a fun, joking song, gradually building in activity over three sections until it settles back down again with a direct restatement of the opening 'b' material.

Note:  The transition section after "Raub" has not been analyzed.

#13 – Enthauptung

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|          X     X    |



structure:|A         B     A    |

The 'a' material consists of the dotted quarter / two sixteenths motive. The 'b' material is made up of sinuous fast moving lines. The return of A is a nearly a direct quote of the opening material, with the 16th note patterns and melody in the voice and strings.

Note:  The return of Der Kranke Mond not analyzed.

#14 – Die Kreuze

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|         X      X     |



structure:|A        B       ->  A|

'a' material: crashing piano chords against strident voice part. 'b' material: soft, icy oscillations and repeated 16th notes. In mm14-16 there are aspects of both material put together. While fragments of 'a' occur earlier, the only clear return of the 'a' material is in the final chords, which are also used to open the movement. This makes the return to 'a' more like a "frame" put around the less-structured material in the center.

#15 – Heimweh

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|   X           X   X    X |



structure:|A         A    B   A      |

'a' material:  chords in piano with lyrical violin notes, 'b' material: perky and pointed accompaniment. Both 'a' and 'b' material are part of major section A. The return of the 'b' material in mm 20 is clear and abrupt, the return of 'a' material near comes in somewhat more subtly, and so the return is not as clear.

Note: The transition section (mm 27-31) is not analyzed.

#16 – Gemeinheit

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|               X   X       |



structure:|A   B          A   C       |

'a' material is the strong 16th note melody which starts in the 'cello. 'b' and 'c' material is softer, more pointillistic, and less like Bartok. In the 'C' section, the two types of material are actually blended together, to the point where it is hard to claim 'C' as being either a variation of A or B (since it is a bit of both). The 'd' material serves as a cadential gesture (or cadential warning). This movement could be declared as a "rondo" movement (see previous section), but it was placed here since the final return (measure 27) has no consistent identity (it contains a bit of 'd', a bit of 'a', etc.). However, the return of the opening material at measure 16 is very clear, in the form of a direct quote of the opening measures.

#19 – Serenade

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|(intro)        X         X             X           X |



structure:|(intro)        A         B             A             |

'a' material: lyrical, "serenade-like" cello line with gentle piano chords. 'b' material: more violent and strident. 'c' material: very like 'a' except with piano arpeggios, and a more static sustained cello line. The return of A is obscured a bit, but the serenade-like feeling is strong enough to make it apparent to the ear.

#20 – Heimfahrt (Barcarole)

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|           X     X            |



structure:|  A        B             A    |

The major divisions in this movement are quite blurry, and so it is difficult to confidently declare sections. For example, the flowing lines of the 'b' material in m 6 appears to simply float to the top of the texture and eventually dominate the 'cello pizzicato and lilting clarinet line. The 'c' material is characterized by the perky repeated 8th notes, often with grace-note ornamentations. The return of A is very clear, if brief.

Transformational Binary Movements

Many movements of Pierrot do not feature a return to earlier material. Dramatically, these movements can be considered to have "motion", meaning that they leave you in a different place than where you first started. This is a very dramatic use of structure, since it presents, musically, Pierrot's changing character.

There are two types of transformation presented in Pierrot. The first is a clear movement from A to B, where the two places are very distinct and independent. Movements such as #2 "Columbine, #3 Der Dandy, and #6 "Madonna" fall into this category.

A second transformation is achieved by morphing the opening material but with no clear arrival to a new place. This can happen if the material simply dissipates (such as #5 "Valse de Chopin") or spins out of control (#12 "Galgenlied").

Finally, two movements in this category are not easily classified. Both #7 "Der kranke Mond" and #17 "Parodie" end up with different material or textures than at the beginning, but you don't get the sense that the character of Pierrot has been changed in the process. Perhaps these are intentionally ironic statements.

#2 – Columbine

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|                X           X            |



structure:|A           (A/B)  (B/A)    B            |

"Columbine" demonstrates these types of transformational structures quite clearly. The piece starts out clearly enough, as if it were a graceful German song (a landler). Then gradually, from mm 12-25 the mood gets more uncomfortable and dark. Around measure 25 the violin arpeggios signal the approach of new material, followed by light, icy, repeated 8th note chords in the piano, the 'c' material, which eventually ends the movement.

#3 – Der Dandy

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|          X         X          |



structure:|A         A'        B          |

Der Dandy is a confusing movement. Clearly it ends up somewhere other than where it started, if only because the frantic, icy, clanking of the opening could not be sustained. The B section is almost waltz-like, but with a sinister feel to it. The 'd' material is really just a sweeping gesture to put a punctuation mark at the end of #3, and it doesn't have the frantic, out-of-control feeling as the opening.

#5 – Valse de Chopin

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|              X           X                 |



structure:|A             A'          B                 |

"Valse de Chopin" starts off with the best of intentions, since the opening material is graceful and waltz-like, but the waltz (after mm21-23) gradually dissolves and by the end there's almost nothing left. This is a case where the opening materially just appears to fizzle out, since the 'd' and 'e' material is not assertive or independent enough to take over.

#6 – Madonna

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|              X         |



structure:|A      A'     (A/B)B'   |

'a' material: languid voice, flute and clarinet over steady, insistent 'cello pizzicato notes. This is transformed into something quite anguished and painful by the end (wailing 'cello against dark, pounding piano chords). Clearly, the character of Pierrot has been transformed during this movement.

#7 – Der Kranke Mond

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|           X        X      |



structure:|A  ->     (A/B)     B      |

The transformational quality of "Der Kranke Mond" is not as clear as in prior movements. The opening has a consistent pulse with a weak pathetic quality, and has both the flute and voice in counterpoint. This gradually breaks up in the transition section (A/B). The B section is a weird, too-perky and too-trite musical sequence, as if Pierrot were putting on a brave face before finally descending into terror.

#12 – Galgenlied

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|             |



structure:|A   (A/B)   B|

Galgenlied should, perhaps, be put into the next section, since it is really just a short statement of a single idea (a single episode). However, that idea does quickly spin out of control into something of a train-wreck by the end, and so while the character of Pierrot may not have been substantially transformed during this movement, the music certainly has been.

#17 – Parodie

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|               X     X       |



structure:|A                    B       |

The structure of this movement is nearly a "Rondo", since there is a clear return of the 'a' material (the sarcastic song and canonic material). And, there is almost a return of this material at the end (it does return, but is inverted). Ultimately, however, the character of the piece changes from the beginning (more lilting and sarcastic) to the end, which starts out quiet and scary (the 'b' material), and then ends up more sinister and out-of-control.

Note: The interlude after Parodie (mm 30-32) has not been analyzed.

Episodic Movements

Episodic movements fall into two categories: those with no clear connection between the sections, and those with no sections at all. These movements feel more like a series of one or more direct statements with little or no transitional material or dramatic motion.

#9 – Gebet an Pierrot

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|     X      X       |



structure:|A    A'     A''  (A)|

"Gebet an Pierrot" is not much more than three large gestures tied together with some unifying motivic fragments (the ascending thirds at the beginning, the 8th note repeated figures, etc.). As such, it is a good example of an episodic movement. The three gestures, while similar, appear to have little or no dramatic relationship to each other, and the ending leaves us just about where we started.

#11 – Rote Messe

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|         X       X           |



structure:|A        B       C           |

"Rote Messe" is made up of three, clearly distinct episodes, each with a very different character. The A section is dark and scary, the B is wild and terrible, and C is resigned with "sighing" gestures throughout the instruments. The sections all have references to the opening material in the piano, but radically transformed to fit the changing emotions.

#18 – Der Mondfleck

           1        10        20        30        40        50


maj divsn:|                   |



structure:|A                  |

"Der Mondfleck" is perhaps the most difficult movement to analyze, since one is left thinking, "there must be more than this". Despite occasional patterns which emerge from the texture, there are no clear sections or breaks in the overall flow of this movement. About all that one can say is that there are occasional fluctuations in volume, as notated by Schoenberg (and not clearly represented in my recording).

This movement is, therefore, a single direct statement of an idea, essentially a single contained episode within the movements of Pierrot Lunaire as a whole.


And now we can put all of these movements together to see the entire scope of Pierrot Lunaire:

1.      Mondestrunken:                           stable               A B A C A

2.      Columbine:                                  motion              A (A/B) (B/A) B

3.      Der Dandy:                                  motion              A  A'  B

4.      Eine blasse Wäscherin:                 return               A B A

5.      Valse de Chopin:                         motion              A A' B

6.      Madonna:                                    motion              A A' (A/B) B

7.      Der kranke Mond:                       motion              A -> (A/B) B


8.      Nacht (Passacaglia):                    return               A B (A)

9.      Gebet an Pierrot:                         episodes           A A' A'' (A)

10.  Raub:                                          return               A A' B A

11.  Rote Messe:                                episodes           A B C

12.  Galgenlied:                                   (motion)           A (A/B) B

13.  Enthauptung:                                return               A B A

14.  Die Kreuze:                                 return               A B -> A


15.  Heimweh:                                    return               A A B A

16.  Gemeinheit:                                  return               A B A C (A)

17.  Parodie:                                       motion              A  B

18.  Der Mondfleck:                           episode            A

19.  Serenade:                                    return               A B A

20.  Heimfahrt (Barcarole):                 return               A B A

21.  O alter Duft:                                stable               A B A C A


Notice how Schoenberg has arranged the movements such that most of the motion occurs in the first section. We start out with a stable, welcoming, introductory movement ("Mondestrunken") and then are moved directly and quickly from place to place, mostly downward, until we end up in poetic hell when "Nacht" arrives. This makes the passage into darkness appear to be slippery and therefore all the more frightening.

All of the movements in the second section are either episodic or returns. It is as if the character of Pierrot is wallowing, unable to move from the terror in which he has found himself. The one movement with motion, "Galgenlied" is not really motion at all, just an interlude that quickly spins back out of control.

Similarly, there is not much motion in the movements of the third section. Instead, we seem to be stepping out of hell movement by movement, rather than moving more smoothly within movements.

Schoenberg is using musical structures within the movements to create large-scale dramatic motion over the entirety of Pierrot Lunaire. This method, using smaller structures which add up to create a large-scale dramatic arc is one of the many reasons why this work has retained its power and popularity since it was first introduced.