A distressed, suffering wail rent the air, “O mother of all sorrows,” as Nonsemble 6 performed Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” in Kresge Recital Hall on Tuesday night. “Pierrot Lunaire,” a modernist melodrama by Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg, written and composed in 1912, combines the poetry of Otto Hartleben’s translation of Albert Giraud’s poems by the same name with Schoenberg’s groundbreaking, atonal music. Not only did Schoenberg compose the music to which the 21 poems are set, he also provided instructions for how the poems were to be presented — sprechstimme in German — somewhere between speaking and singing.
While the five person ensemble of flute/piccolo (Justin Lee), clarinets (Anna-Christina Phillips), violin/viola (Kevin Rogers), piano (Ian Scarfe) and cello (Anne Suda) performed Schoenberg’s instrumental music, soprano Amy Foote delivered Hartleben’s chilling poetics, fully utilizing sprechstimme in her intonations, one minute screeching, then singing melodic notes, then falling into a lower register and speaking. English translation of the German poetry was projected onto a screen, although the feeling of the music was readily apparent from the discord and terror of the instrumentation and the frequently diabolical and engaging expressions and intonations of Foote.
“Giant black monster-moths blot out the light of the sun,” Foote sang (in German) as the music projected a similar aural sense of surreal terror and nightmare. The atonal nature of the music, rather than being grating (although it was certainly not melodic), emerged as characterization of the elements of the poems. During the performance certain instruments and sequences began to emerge as representations of the elements of the poems: blood, monsters and the Virgin Mary.
“It is really more melodrama [than music alone]. We start thinking of the instruments as characters,” Foote said.
Following over a month and a half of performing “Pierrot Lunaire,” Nonsemble 6 feels that they have begun to really master the complicated, unusual piece of music. “We’ve started to wrangle the beast,” Foote said. “For us we’ve been performing it for so long it sounds normal to us.”
For the second half of the concert Nonsemble 6 performed French composer Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (1941). The piece was composed by Messiaen during his time in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II. Inspired by the book of Revelation, Quartet for the End of Time was written for piano, cello, violin, flute and clarinet, the instruments available to Messiaen during his imprisonment.
As part of Nonsemble 6’s performance of the piece, Professor of Art at Monmouth College Tyler Hennings created two paintings informed by Quartet for the End of Time, which were displayed during the performance. Messiaen in his preface to the score states that he sought to communicate the concept of the Abyss (“Time with its sadness”) and the awakening of birds. While the music easily evokes feelings of chaos, terror and injury alongside rebirth, humanity and simultaneously tumultuous and sinister new horizons, Henning’s paintings, marbles with bird-forms suspending in a black field, sought to communicate similar feelings.
Painting for a piece of music “was something I’d never really done before. As a still-life painter this was a big jump for me,” Hennings said. A painting typical of Hennings’ work is a still life of a jar of jelly, a marble and a pencil.
Hennings continued, “Even if I can’t articulate the way the music influenced me, I know it did because the product is so different.”
Nonsemble 6’s performance and Hennings’ creation of his paintings are both part of a larger contemporary art week at Monmouth College.