"Give a Man a Mask and He'll Tell the Truth": Arnold Schoenberg, David Bowie, and the Mask of Pierrot1

By Carpenter, Alexander | Intersections, July 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

"Give a Man a Mask and He'll Tell the Truth": Arnold Schoenberg, David Bowie, and the Mask of Pierrot1


Carpenter, Alexander, Intersections


Introduction

Although initially it might seem that arch-modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg and rock music icon David Bowie would be strange bedfellows, they share an intriguing relationship: each donned the mask of the Pierrot character, and for many of the same reasons. More specifically, the mask of Pierrot provided Schoenberg and Bowie the means for reflection upon the nature of art and the artist's relationship to both his art and the world at large, and also upon personal lives and musical pasts that provided much of the substance and meaning of their respective works. Schoenberg's 1912 melodrama Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21, is widely regarded as one of his most important compositions and is often described as a work of burgeoning neoclassic objectivism, characterized by parody and ironic detachment, that takes a step away from the intensely intuitive and deeply subjective expressionistic works that immediately precede it.2 However, Pierrot Lunaire, with its highly satirical surface, is also a kind of musical and psychological summation, even a purgation of a creative and personal period in Schoenberg's life- a turning point marking the effective end of Schoenberg's free atonal "crisis" period and foreshadowing the more structured twelve-tone method.3 David Bowie, almost seventy years later, adopted - literally- the guise of Pierrot for his 1980 album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), likewise a transitional work. As with Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, Bowie's Pierrot-themed album served as both requiem for his earlier incarnations - as glam rock provocateur and avant-garde pop star - and as a means to establish a foothold in the future, namely the burgeoning new wave / new romantic aesthetic of the early 1980s, from which he would be launched into international superstardom.

This essay aims to contribute to the interpretation and understanding of the relationships between the music and biographies of both Arnold Schoenberg and David Bowie. It does so by contextualizing their respective uses of the Pierrot character and by examining how both musicians become inseparable from the sad, insolent clown. For both Schoenberg and Bowie, Pierrot's maskas Oscar Wilde's well-known aphorism, and the title of this essay, suggestsmakes it possible, even necessary, to use artifice to speak the truth about art and self, especially in moments of change and uncertainty. I begin this essay with a historical overview of the Pierrot character in the Commedia dell'arte tradition and locate his emergence as an archetype of the misunderstood artist in the latter half of the nineteenth century. I then revisit some of the potent autobiographical elements of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, challenging the characterization of the melodrama as a work of ironic detachment, a work from which Schoenberg stood at some distance. This discussion is followed by an examination of David Bowie's adoption of Pierrot as one of a number of his alter egos, in which I analyze the importance of Pierrot in his musical transformation from an androgynous iconoclast in the 1970s to mainstream new wave superstar of the 1980s. The essay concludes by reaffirming Wilde's point of view: the distance that wearing a mask presupposes is in fact undercut by the very nature of Pierrot, who symbolizes the artist at remove from humanity, but at the same time inevitably exposes the humanity of the artist.

PIERROT: THE MASK AND THE CULT

Pierrot is usually described as a character from the commedia dell'arte tradition, but he is not really a direct product of Italian Renaissance theatre. Pierrot has been linked to Pulcinella and Pedrolino of the commedia as his distant ancestors; however, while Pierrot does share some features of these two characters, he follows a different evolutionary path, emerging as a unique character by the nineteenth century.4 As A. G. Lehmann has noted, Pierrot is a "French interpolation" into the commedia, attributable to Molière's Don Juan of 1665 (1967, 209). …

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