PERPETUALLY PINING PIERROT: Symbolist Mascot and Melodic Muse
Though a string of kings, coups, and dictators had thrown mid-nineteenth century France into instability, many in the upper echelons continued to lead a gilded life. Indeed, the entitlement of the “haute-bourgeoisie,” the class of wealthy merchants and bankers, only increased under King Louis-Philippe. Bred by a culture of discontent with excess materialism, a group of poets (including Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Stéphane Mallarmé) began to write elegant, darkly mysterious verse. Their work tried to make sense of a shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy, from a rural to an urban landscape; in short, from the classical to the modern era. Whereas much literature of the previous generation tried to draw bright moral lines, or strive toward the height of humanity, Symbolist work dwelt in a world of moral complexity, with a propensity toward vice. Essentially, the gold of the Enlightenment became tarnished by smoky plumes from factory chimneys and back-alley opium dens.
Many Symbolists wrote of tasting colors, smelling sights, or other non-traditional perceptions of mingled senses, which eventually was labeled “Synesthesia.” Recently, for example, a perfume magazine reflected on the olfactory sense of Baudelaire’s words. It only stood to reason, then, that what began as a literary movement eventually took on representations in music and painting as well. In these aural and visual art forms, it was easy to create a gauzy haze, an intentional muddling of atmosphere, where elegance of gesture was subdued by a darker palette. Consequently, just as sports teams have a mascot, this aesthetic movement found a figurehead to depict its goals: the melancholy romantic clown Pierrot. According to musicologist Susan Youens:
“Pierrots were endemic everywhere in late nineteenth/early twentieth century Europe as an archetype of the self-dramatizing artist, who presents to the world a stylized mask both to symbolize and veil artistic ferment, to distinguish the creative artist from the human being. Behind the all-enveloping traditional costume of white blouse, white trousers, and floured face, the Pierrot-character changed with the passage of time, from uncaring prankster to romantic malheureux to Dandy, Decadent, and finally, into a brilliant tormented figure submerged in a bizarre, airless inner world.” [“Excavating an Allegory: The Text of Pierrot Lunaire,” Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute 8 (1984): 94-115.]
Originally a stock character in the 16th century Italian commedia dell’arte, then known as Pedrolino, Pierrot is perhaps one of the better known characters from this art form. The original “sad clown,” he could be involved in both comic and romantic plots, either with boisterous energy or swooning mien. Pierrot pined after Columbina, who preferred the affections of the rascal Arlecchino (Harlequin). He spoke with a higher voice and more swooping gesture than Arlecchino, another Zanni character. Adapted by the French, he became more mystical and moony, playing the harp and pining away. Even philosophers started adopting Pierrot as a poster child; at one point, Pierrot embodied the struggle of post-revolution France struggling to secure a place in the bourgeois world. Symbolists saw him as an emblem of suffering, with only the moon for a friend. Naturally, as Pierrot’s association with the moon (and thus, the night) deepened, it was easy to emphasize his darker qualities; eventually artists gave him a literally bleeding heart, as in Leo Rauth’s works “Liebesschwur (Oath of Love)” and “Ein gern gesehener Gast (A Well-Received Guest).” Since his sadness often caused his words to fail him, Pierrot is seen as the father of mime. Read more in this great piece on Pierrot’s transformations through the ages and artistic disciplines.
The songs performed on the VOX 3 Collective concert, Comedy Tonight, show some of the different ways Pierrot has been treated by artists who saw the figure as an alter ego. Sarah Teasdale’s poem “Pierrot,” as set by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, is a typical early twentieth century depiction of the character. The clown plays his lute beneath the moon, but the protagonist feels an even deeper pain, as even the sad lovesick clown does not requite her love. The Giraud cycle of Pierrot poems, used in Hartleben’s German translation by Arnold Schoenberg for his Pierrot Lunaire and in part by Joseph Marx for his song “Pierrot Dandy,” point up the grotesque aspects of the clown’s appearance. He uses makeup to change his appearance (and hide his feelings), amidst a murky, quasi-religious setting. Langston Hughes uses the sparest of words to show his modern Pierrot, echoed well in Jean Berger’s song “Heart.” Here, there is little of the physical trappings of the character: no makeup, no white costume, no lyre; the emphasis instead is on loneliness and isolation, perhaps as felt by an African-American artist working in a “white man’s genre.” Finally, Noël Coward’s “Parisian Pierrot” is a light nostalgic song originally featured in the 1923 revue London Calling. Using a host of commedia characters, the lyrics look back fondly on olden days of fantasy, while modern styles have shifted away from traditional romance. Coward’s words indicate that Pierrot, the ever-melancholy loser, will eventually get his moment…”as soon as the clock goes ’round.”