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Thread: What Is The Point Of Sprechstimme?

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    Default What Is The Point Of Sprechstimme?

    What was Schoenberg trying to achieve? I've seen a bunch of articles on how he intended it to be performed but what I don't seem to understand is the -why-?

    Did he ever write about what the point was? What he was trying to express?

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    Melodrama, or spoken word over musical accompaniment, was a popular genre in the 19th century, most examples of which have completely fallen by the wayside as tastes changed. You can still find a number of 20th century examples by composers such as Stravinsky and Copland.

    Sprechgesang, or speech-song, is not quite the same thing, in that pitches are notated which the performer must hit and then fall away from, like the decay of vocal inflection.

    Pierrot lunaire was written for a cabaret performer, not a classically-trained singer, and so the style of performance should be taken as something like a classicized cabaret number.

    As for his other uses of the technique, scholars have noted that they are either closely related to the chanting he heard as a child in Synagogue (Moses und Aron, Kol Nidre, Psalm 130) or to more traditional melodrama (Ode to Napoleon).

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    Pierrot is about insanity; the sprechstimme, like a lot of other things about it, heightens the feeling of the uncanny.

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    I think Weill used a similar technique in Die Dreigroschenoper—at least, how his wife, Lotte Lenya realized it. Here, it is more zany than insane.

    [Is Pierrot really insane? I guess I should read the texts more closely, but I find it very deep and insightful in a—I know it sounds corny and cliché to say it—Zen sort of way.]

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    Quote Originally Posted by brotagonist View Post
    [Is Pierrot really insane? I guess I should read the texts more closely, but I find it very deep and insightful in a—I know it sounds corny and cliché to say it—Zen sort of way.]
    Yes?

    I would say that the whole work is intentionally dream-like, presenting distortions of reality and non-sequiturs in a heightened, semi-grotesque way. This is not to say it's always ugly, of course, but it is intentionally very weird (or uncanny, as Isorhythm says above).

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    "What is the point" seems like a flip way of posing the question, as if the possibility existed that "there is no point."

    I never questioned Schoenberg, in anything he did, and always assumed that he was a true master. I approached John Cage the same way. After all, who the hell am I?

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    Not flip at all. I can't think of a way to say it that is more concise.

    The point is 'expression', right? The guy must've felt a need to use that technique in order express something that could not be expressed via conventional recitative or aria. So I want to know if he ever discussed -why- he used this technique.

    Two reasons make me especially curious:
    1. There are ENDLESS discussions of exactly -what- the technique is... or rather, how Schoenberg meant the performance to sound. Which seems odd given how detailed are his notations in spots. I'd think there would be a 'standard' agreement on what he intended.

    2. As a musician, I have found this technique to be THE single most off-putting 'technique' in 'modern' classical music for listeners--regardless of their background. MOST listeners, regardless of sophistication, simply dislike it and shut down in a way they don't with other 'modern' techniques. Some people dislike 12 tone. Some dislike minimalism. Some can't stand Conlon Nancarrow or Stockhausen or various 'soundscapes'. But -most- people seem to react -viscerally- to sprechstimme/sprechgesang. They find it uniquely unpleasant. And they don't get -why- it's being used. What feelings or ideas it is supposed to be conveying that can't be done otherwise. They don't get 'the point'.

    It is -rare- that I've run across someone who hears it and says, 'Wow, that's interesting.' The usual reactions are either: a) laughter or b) TURN THAT OFF IT'S CREEPING ME OUT.

    I too struggle with the above in spite of 35 years playing the stuff. So I figured I'd try to research the -why- of it.


    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    "What is the point" seems like a flip way of posing the question, as if the possibility existed that "there is no point."

    I never questioned Schoenberg, in anything he did, and always assumed that he was a true master. I approached John Cage the same way. After all, who the hell am I?

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    Quote Originally Posted by suntower View Post
    It is -rare- that I've run across someone who hears it and says, 'Wow, that's interesting.' The usual reactions are either: a) laughter or b) TURN THAT OFF IT'S CREEPING ME OUT.
    Yes, I think b) is in fact the reaction desired by Schoenberg.

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    I react pretty violently to it, but then I also react negatively to musical theater when the speaking starts to get slightly rhythmic and you just know the characters are about to break into a tedious song. It has the same stomach churning effect.

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    Quote Originally Posted by brotagonist View Post
    I think Weill used a similar technique in Die Dreigroschenoper—at least, how his wife, Lotte Lenya realized it. Here, it is more zany than insane.

    [Is Pierrot really insane? I guess I should read the texts more closely, but I find it very deep and insightful in a—I know it sounds corny and cliché to say it—Zen sort of way.]
    I've played 3p opera and the singer(s) -really- toned it down vs other productions I've heard. I think 'zany' is a good way to put it and it seemed appropriate... their world was like a fun house mirror and the sprechstimme reflected that.


    Back on topic. I really wanna know if there are any texts where Schoenberg discusses his 'motivation' for using it.

    Pierrot was always presented to me in music school as something that I -should- like. A work of 'greatness' that I needed to learn to appreciate... like stinky cheese, I guess.

    USUALLY when challenged thus, I've been able to 'get it'. But not wrt Pierrot (although I very much enjoy Wozzeck--perhaps the accompanying visuals help.)

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    Quote Originally Posted by suntower View Post
    USUALLY when challenged thus, I've been able to 'get it'. But not wrt Pierrot (although I very much enjoy Wozzeck--perhaps the accompanying visuals help.)
    When Pierrot was first performed, the musicians were behind a screen, and the performer was dressed up in clown garb. The work is in a sense a theater piece as much as it is chamber music. I think there has been at least one DVD that interprets the work as a film, but I can't vouch for its quality.

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    What I -don't- get is that, from what I've read, the thing was apparently well-reviewed. I'm just stunned. What I mean is, take something like Rite Of Spring. OK, it was a 'scandal', but over time, people have grown accustomed to it (I daresay even inured) to the dissonance. In general, I find sprechstimme just as grating -today- as they must have in 191-whatever.

    The cognitive disconnect between its (for me) genuinely unpleasant sound and the high regard makes me curious.

    For example, I've heard westerners complain about Chinese Opera in similar terms (sorry Chinese Opera fans). But that's a -cultural- thing. And after you watch it a few times, it grows on you (personal experience.)

    But there is a truly -disturbing- quality to sprechstimme that I have never been able to get past. I always conjure images of like an 80's horror movie (Hellraiser comes to mind. )

    So again, I wonder if Schoenberg heard it that way. Or if, to him, it meant something else... like Chinese Opera.


    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    When Pierrot was first performed, the musicians were behind a screen, and the performer was dressed up in clown garb. The work is in a sense a theater piece as much as it is chamber music. I think there has been at least one DVD that interprets the work as a film, but I can't vouch for its quality.

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    Well, saying it was well-received might be going a bit far. Critics savaged the work and there was plenty of hissing at early performances.

    Fellow composers such as Stravinsky, Puccini, and Ravel, however, responded very favorably, and at least parts of the audience were enthusiastic about it. Schoenberg told an anecdote about a doorman at a hotel who had attended an early performance and excitedly told him how much the part about "Rote, fürstliche Rubine," had stuck with him all those years.

    As for why it might have sounded less off-putting to contemporary audiences than listeners today, I suggest looking at the 19th century genre of melodrama, which was very popular.


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    Stravinsky used it, too, in Histoire du Soldat. The narrators—at least in the interpretations I am familiar with—sing-speak their parts with great rhythm and exaggerated feeling that follow the music.

    Contrary to many others, I find the technique to be most enjoyable. It literally invites me to participate, to sing-speak the texts. Imagine a cabaret. Imagine karaoke But these aren't pop songs, but wild and often outlandish productions. It's marvellous. It's anything but creepy to me; it's tongue-in-cheek humour, burlesque.
    Last edited by brotagonist; Aug-05-2015 at 04:33.

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    I was vaguely familiar with the concept of 19th century melodrama but I hadn't heard that Schumann piece so, cheers for that.

    But to me, the sound of sprechstimme is frankly more like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBRvZ6wSVGQ

    There's a line crossed from what I'd call 'preaching' or 'oration' (as Dieter is doing) to actual pitches (and of course the gliss thing). It's very much (for me) the sonic equivalent of eye-rolling--completely UN-natural. Whereas Dieter's hyper-dramatic speech just sounds like over-acting (or great storytelling--your choice) to my ear, sprechstimme crosses into another whole territory of weird. I could simply chalk it up as a creative way to depict mental illness but my understanding is that it is also meant as a more generalised form of expression and THAT's the part I don't get. It truly has a -pathological- quality and I use that word intentionally. I want to know if that's what Schoenberg (and Berg) meant... to be truly -pictorial- of that inner state.

    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    Well, saying it was well-received might be going a bit far. Critics savaged the work and there was plenty of hissing at early performances.

    Fellow composers such as Stravinsky, Puccini, and Ravel, however, responded very favorably, and at least parts of the audience were enthusiastic about it. Schoenberg told an anecdote about a doorman at a hotel who had attended an early performance and excitedly told him how much the part about "Rote, fürstliche Rubine," had stuck with him all those years.

    As for why it might have sounded less off-putting to contemporary audiences than listeners today, I suggest looking at the 19th century genre of melodrama, which was very popular.


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