Sprechstimme Reconsidered Once Again: '... Though Mrs. Stiedry Is Never in Pitch'

By Byron, Avior; Pasdzierny, Matthias | Music Theory Online, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Sprechstimme Reconsidered Once Again: '... Though Mrs. Stiedry Is Never in Pitch'


Byron, Avior, Pasdzierny, Matthias, Music Theory Online


[1] Unpublished correspondence and other evidence discussed in this article suggests that Schoenberg's conception of Sprechstimme in Pierrot lunaire changed as a result of listening to recordings. An exact reproduction of notated pitch was of no concern to Schoenberg as long as performances of Pierrot lunaire were not recorded. As technological possibilities changed, reproducing pitch became a major concern. Schoenberg's awareness that listeners would be able to check recorded performance against the score played a major role in his changing conception of the role of Sprechstimme notation.

[2] In "The Test Pressings of Schoenberg Conducting Pierrot lunaire: Sprechstimme Reconsidered" (MTO 12/1, 2006), Avior Byron demonstrated that Schoenberg's conception of Sprechstimme changed in different periods. "Schoenberg accepted very different performances (although not completely different) of the Sprechstimme notation by Stiedry-Wagner in a period of not more than three days."(2) In a letter to Erwin Stein dated 25 December 1941, Schoenberg offered what might be taken as the composer's final opinion on Stiedry-Wagner's performance on the Pierrot recording as well as a hint about his true concern for the adherence to notated pitch in Sprechstimme. Schoenberg wrote:

I am interested in your plan to perform my Pierrot lunaire. I hope it is you, who will rehearse and conduct this performance. But who will recite, and who are the other performers?

Do you know that, in September 1940, I conducted a recording of it for Columbia, with [Rudolf] Kolisch, [Eduard] Steuermann and Mrs. Stiedry. These records have only been released two months ago, and I doubt, whether you know them. They are to a great part quite good, though Mrs. Stiedry is never in pitch and several pieces are not very well recorded. I can say, most was played better than recorded. Nothing is better recorded, than played.(3)

This criticism standing, one may argue that Stiedry-Wagner was the best performer that he could find at that time, and point out the fact that they where good friends. Indeed, she was Schoenberg's favourite performer and she performed many times under his baton, as well as that of Erwin Stein and other conductors. It is hard to believe that only after two decades did Schoenberg notice that her Sprechstimme was so off-pitch.

[3] A sharp change in Stein's conception of Sprechstimme happened in the early 1940s. After receiving the letter from Schoenberg from 25 December 1941 where he complained that "Mrs. Stiedry is never in pitch," Stein, who worked for two decades with Schoenberg and Stiedry-Wagner, began to lose confidence concerning the composer's intentions. On 18 March 1942 he wrote to Schoenberg: "I have had, so far, about fifteen rehearsals with the speaker of Pierrot, Miss Hedli Anderson, and I have every confidence that she will do it well. Her voice has a much higher range than Erika Wagner's and it will perhaps be possible for her to speak the actual pitches, as noted in the score."(4) On 29 April 1942 he continued to report to Schoenberg: "Last Saturday we had the first full rehearsal of Pierrot and it was rather satisfactory. I think the speaker, Miss Hedli Anderson, will be very good indeed. She really is able to speak the actual pitches as noted in the score. Of course, she still makes some mistakes, but we have a month before us as the performance is going to take place on May 29th."(5) These letters show that Stein was suddenly attempting to coach Hedli Anderson to hit the exact notated pitches, something that he did not do with Stiedry-Wagner. It is amazing how one sentence by Schoenberg was able to destabilize Stein's confidence.(6)

[4] Yet Schoenberg's sudden criticism of Stiedry-Wagner's off-pitch Sprechstimme could not erase the twenty years of Stein's experience with her and the composer. Indeed, Stein had doubts, and they are reflected in a letter dated 30 November 1942 where he wrote to Schoenberg about the 1940 recording: "You told me that you were not satisfied with Erika Wagner and I realized what you mean when I heard the records. …

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