The Pierrot Puzzle


 Investigation into the Pierrot connection; sources, references, background in Commedia dell'Arte, development in France, parallel movements in literature and painting; Zeitgeist.






Much has been written on the subject of Debussy's inspirational clown Pierrot. Many writers allude to the fact that Debussy had originally subtitled the Cello Sonata “ Pierrot fâché avec la lune ”, and that the Sonata follows a descriptive scenario of Pierrot's frustration over his unrequited love.


It is not within the scope of this article to explore fully the genealogy of the Pierrot character, but it is fascinating to reflect upon the way in which the sad clown, and his fellow mimes, mummers and jesters, have played an enduring role in many forms of artistic expression, including literature, theatre, music and the visual arts.


Pierrot's ancient progenitors are thought  to have been found in Greek farce, (which parodied Greek tragic drama ), and later in the vast theatres of Imperial Rome, where the real art of pantomime - or dumb show - began, with actors and mimes playing out satire and tragedy for the amusement of the Emperor and his court between the more serious matters of bloodletting and carnage. With the development of the Commedia dell'Arte in 16th century Italy, when  stock characters were given such familiar names as Arleccino, Pantaloon, Pulcinella, Scapino  and Scaramouche, the emphasis was more on improvised, but spoken, comedy, which in essence, laid the foundation for all the buffo  characters of later comic opera. Another major characteristic of this entertainment was the use of masks which became associated with specific characters. After the demise of the commedia dell'arte, from those stock characters came a whole troupe of players, amongst whom Canio ( of Pagliacci ), Punch, and others share some characteristic personality traits and iconographic similarities.


The commedia dell'arte also flourished in France when the Italian companies began to tour abroad, ( from 1661 the Commédie Italienne in Paris shared a theatre with Molière's company ) but inevitably because of regional differences and in order to court French taste, the content and presentation began to change.  Additionally, because of language difficulties, the players increasingly turned to mime to express themselves,  unconsciously  establishing  a “ new ” mode of theatre, based more on the external accoutrements of the drama such as the costumes of the masked characters, and romantic aspects of the  Harlequinade  which eventually superceded the traditions of the commedia dell'arte. It was at this time that the characters of Pierrot and Columbine began to assume more importance in the drama.


The extent to which Pierrot  ( and his fellow mimes ) became a universal symbol can be gauged from the succession of works inspired by the Harlequinade. From Watteau's “ Gilles ”, to Toulouse-Lautrec's clowns and Picasso's harlequins, the visual symbols of the costumes and masks immediately conjure up the characters of the carnival and masked ball. There are numerous parallels throughout music, such as in Schumann's Carnival, Busoni's Arlecchino, Stravinsky's Pulcinella and Petrushka, Strauss's Ariadne, Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire,     (inspired by Albert Giraud's cycle of poems published in 1884, and composed in 1912 ) Milhaud's Scaramouche, Walton's Scapino, and so on, right up to Stockhausen's Harlekin pieces for clarinet, and Birtwhistle's “ Punch and Judy ”.


 Travelling   eastwards   there  are   are   also vestiges  (  albeit  with   more  “ mystical ” associations ) of the character in Dostoyevsky's, Mussorgsky's and Shostakovich's manifestations of the “ Divine Fool ”,  often the object of derision, who at the same time throws a greater light , for those who care to see it, on the human condition.


Significantly  however, the character of Pierrot did not really assume its final shape until it became the alter ego of a Bohemian comic actor called Jean Gaspard Deburau, who was born near Warsaw towards the end of the eighteenth century, the fifth child of an impoverished soldier in Napoleon's army. Through endless vicissitudes the family struggled across Europe as a group of touring acrobats, and eventually found themselves in France, where Deburau broke away from the rest of his family, having been singularly unsuccessful as an acrobat. Finally, after years of obscurity and despair in Paris, he  found himself working in the Theatre des Funambules, the Tight-rope Theatre, which by chance had become the nursery of the re-born art of pantomime in mid-nineteenth century France.


Many famous mimes, including Lemaître, served their apprenticeship here, and Deburau was able to observe their work and develop his own particular approach to the mime, to which he felt able to bring all the experience of his somewhat tragi-comical life. Deburau adopted the persona of Pierrot and breathed life and soul into him in such a way that  Paris was taken by storm! The Theatre des Funambules was filled to overflowing six times a day, and Deburau was a celebrity amongst the poets, playwrights and artists who flocked to see him. He was, apparently, capable of an infinite range of purely physical expression; “ discarding the old grin and horseplay, Deburau made him into a natural, gentle half-pathetic, half-humourous, wholly human fugure, pale and cadaverous, with a smile of silent raillery for ever flickering round his lips. ” [1]


Deburau became, in France, what  Grimaldi was to the Italians, and virtually turned Pierrot into a national hero. But, ironically and in spite of his glory, true to the character of Pierrot himself, Deburau was prey to poverty, sickness and managerial tyranny.


Debussy's fondness for the characters of the pantomime was manifest at a very early age, and it may well be that he was taken, as a child, to a particular theatre where his imagination was kindled by these colourful clowns, later finding in the pathos of their lives a whole world of emotional expression. While he was still a student at the Villa Medici in Rome ( after winning the Prix de Rome in 1885 ) he used to love to attend performances of the Neapolitan “ Polchinelle ”, ( a kind of masked Pierrot ) , and before that, in 1882 aged 20, he had already composed some settings of Verlaine's   “ Fêtes Galantes ”, including “ Pantomime”  and a setting of Theodore de Banville's “Pierrot”. Variations on these themes appeared throughout Debussy's works, as though he returned every now and then to a familiar scenario in which he felt very much at home, in the milieu of Pierrot and his friends. He also retained a fascination for the circus and music-hall  all his life, once following up four nights at a Covent Garden “ Ring ” cycle, with one at the Alhambra Music-Hall, “ as a reward for good behaviour ”!


Wilfrid Mellers, in his “ Studies in Contemporary Music ”, goes as far as to propose  Pierrot as a metaphor of Debussy's own life, suggesting that his preoccupation with the mythological Harlequin was no less than an obsession, “ a symbolisation of his own difficulties and nostalgia ”.


Thus it would certainly be no surprise to learn that “ Pierrot fâché avec la lune ” was to have been the proposed epigraph for the Sonata. This is mentioned by various writers including Mellers and Lockspeiser, and has become woven, over the years, into the fabric of musicological writing on Debussy and his music. However going in search of more solid evidence on this theory proves to be extremely difficult. It was even said at one time that the manuscript bore the subtitle, which Debussy then instructed his publisher, Durand, not to print, but examination of the Bibliothèque Nationale manuscript, and the Winterthur manuscript certainly does not support this theory.


 ( Example 1 )




Ex 1  The final version of the opening from the Biblioteque National Manuscript;

note lack of inscription.



There are other conflicting aspects to the theory.


Debussy conceived the composition of the last group of chamber works very much as a unified group of works. Apart from a letter in which he mentions the proposed  six sonatas, there exists in the Bibliothèque Nationale a single page from a notebook, dating from 1915 - the same year as the Cello Sonata - which lays out the plan for the Sonatas -



                                                Six Sonatas......etc


            I           Violoncelle et piano

            II          Flute, alte et harpe

            III         Violon, cor anglais & piano

            IV         Hautbois, cor et clavecin

            V          Trompette, clarinette, basson & piano

            VI         La sixième Sonata sera en forme de concert, on y trouvera

                        rassemblé la sonorité des " divers instruments " avec en plus

                        le gracieux concours d'une contrabass.


( One major change, happily for violinists ( ! ) was that when it came to the composition of the third Sonata, Debussy omitted the cor anglais. )


When actually published the title page of the three extant Sonatas bore the famous inscription



Pour Divers instruments

Composeé par


Musicien Français



On the face of it, given the plan, and the nature of the proposed sixth Sonata, where all the instruments were to combine ( almost like an antecedent  of the Messaien “ Quartet for the End of Time ” ) it would seem unlikely that Debussy should have conceived a programmatic plan for only the first Sonata ( there is no record of anything similar for the other two ).


Other things were also preoccupying him. Depressed by the events of the war, and the effects of his deteriorating health, in the same letter to his publisher in which he mentions the imminent arrival of the Cello Sonata, he says


“ I think of the youth of France, wantonly mown down by those Kultur merchants, and of its contribution to our heritage, now for ever lost to us. The music I'm writing will be a secret homage to them; what's the use of a dedication ? However you look at it, it's the result of egoism in a state of uncertainty and that wont bring anyone back to life. ”


Another major redirection in Debussy's thinking at this time was his preoccupation with the essentially “ classical ” nature of music, and to the inspiration of eighteenth century French  music, particularly that of the great French clavecinists Rameau and Couperin, moving away from the rhapsodic “ impressionistic ” nature of earlier works, many of which bore descriptive “ extra -musical ” titles ( though these were often at the behest of his publisher ). At the same time he felt that he was heir to the great heritage of French culture and that his sonatas “ in the ancient, flexible mould with none of the grandiloquence of modern sonatas ”  broke with the overbearing Germanic models.  And in October 1915 in a letter to Stravinsky, which is generally concerned with the debillitating effects of war, both spiritually and musically,


“ I've actually written nothing except ' pure ’ music: twelve Etudes  for piano; two Sonatas for various instruments, in the old French style which was kind enough not to ask for tetralogical efforts from its listeners." ( a reference to Wagner's Ring cycle )


If indeed the epigraph to the Cello Sonata was  withdrawn, this could be one reason why - the return to a “classical”, more “ purely ” musical, concept of the sonata.


However, there is another, if more perverse, reason, concerning the  “ disappearance ” of the epigraph.


The first public performance of the Cello Sonata had to wait till March 1917, when the performers were Joseph Salmon and Debussy, only two months before his last appearance as a pianist in Paris, ( in the première of the Violin Sonata. ) Before that, however, there had been a private performance, at the instigation of Debussy's great friend André Caplet. A letter of June 1916 to Caplet is revealing on several counts:


“ You're an amazing fellow......As bold as a lion, you manage to find a piano, a  'cellist and a sonata and to get them all together just a few miles away from the Boches......such  elegant  bravure  is  and  always  will be  the very ‘ essence of France ’ As for the bowing, do what you like ! The fact is, every cellist will find a bowing he thinks is best... Except when they're playing together  in  an  orchestra, I dont  think  it's  anything to worry  about, do you  ?


As for printing mistakes, contact Jacques Durand.”


This letter sheds light on several things which are of interest, especially in view of two further letters from October of the same year. Unfortunately the cellist whom Caplet found is not named in the June letter, but it seems likely that it was a certain Louis Rosoor.


 (  See Letter  in  Footnote No 3 )


In the first of the October letters to Jacques Durand, Debussy says:


“ Yesterday I had a visit from Mr L Roos ....( Rosoor ) For a moment he made me feel sorry I'd composed a sonata and I began to wonder whether my writing was at fault ! This episode has worried me considerably; the ramifications are many and I'm not surprised any more that my poor music is so often not understood. Without dramatizing things unduly, it was terrifying. Why wasn't I taught to polish spectacles, like Spinoza  ? Then I'd never have had to rely on music to provide my daily bread....


Its a miscalculation, indeed I'd go so far as to call it dishonest. If only it weren't too late, unfortunately, to make something out of this bitter truth.”


Then a few days later, again to Durand:


“ M Louis Rosoor comes not from Bordeaux but from Lille and won a first prize at the Paris Conservatoire. That doesn't stop him from having his own individual understanding of my music. We must be particularly tolerant with those who've been invaded by the Germans ! If the world's now coming to 4 place de la Madeleine to buy my music and treating it any old how, that doesn't worry me, but when self-styled ' virtuosi ' spread error and desolation in so-called ‘ concert ’ halls, I continue to find that irritating. But if you dont see anything wrong, we'll say no more about it. ”


From the tone of these letters, Debussy was obviously extremely  upset by Rosoor, and whatever it was that he was trying to do.  Even if he was not, in fact, the cellist that Caplet had found to try out the sonata in June, nevertheless Rosoor  felt  that  he  had a  special a priori  “ insight ” into the piece, having  had personal contact with Debussy about it.  But Rosoor's subsequent “ crime ” was that he used to actually distribute to his audiences a descriptive mise en scène  explaining the events in the drama surrounding Pierrot, claiming that he had  been given these personally  by Debussy.


The scenario, according to Rosoor, was as follows:



                                    Pierrot wakes up with a jolt, shakes of his sleepiness, and remembers fondly  

                                    the charms of his beloved.....



                           whom he goes to play a serenade; but the most                                                                                           beguiling entreaties leave her unfeelingly cold towards him....



                                    Pierrot consoles himself meanwhile, by singing a song to freedom,

                                    not without some regret.........


What emerges from all of this is that Rosoor probably wanted Debussy to agree to the publication of this programmatic précis, and possibly the epigraph, no doubt on the grounds that it would make the music more accessible to audiences. There is even a suggestion that Rosoor may have tried to influence Durand directly in this matter, to which Debussy responded vociferously with the pejorative remarks of the letters.


Bearing in mind, however, the fact that the Sonata was given to the publishers in August 1915 without  any epigraph on the manuscript, it is still a matter of conjecture as to when, if at any time, “ Pierrot fâché avec la  lune” was actually removed by Debussy, as some commentators have suggested, irrespective of the later contretemps with Rosoor.  The strength of Debussy's reaction to Rosoor does, however, leave a nagging feeling that, in Hamlet's words “ The lady doth protest too much, methinks ”, the denial lending, if anything, more  credence to the Pierrot story,  resulting from his extreme personal antipathy to Rosoor's method of explaining  the music. We do know from an article written by Debussy in 1913, that preserving the mystique  of music was of paramount importance to him .


Finally we are really only left with a statement from Leon Vallas, whose several books on Debussy formed the basis for all subsequent biography. Vallas was a personal acquaintance of Debussy and wrote with an authority based both on scholarship and contemporaneous experience. In his book    “ Claude Debussy - His Life and Works ”, he says  “ We are told that the musician had thought of calling it ( the Sonata  ) Pierrot fâché avec la lune ’, and that he wished to evoke characters of the old Italian comedy. ”


We are told  ” still imbues this information with a somewhat conjectural feeling, but Vallas is the closest witness we can find to establish the validity of the Pierrot case.


There is another reason, however, why we know that Debussy was thinking of the characters of the pantomime at that time. At the end of June 1915 Durand suggested that Debussy do some more revisions of Chopin piano music, ( he had done some earlier in the year ) but he demurred at the task, saying . “ I have a few ideas at the moment, and, although they are not worth making a fuss about, I should like to cultivate them for the benefit of the duet for two pianos, and of the Fêtes Galantes.”  The latter was the same title as that for the song settings of 1892 and 1904, but according to Leon Vallas Debussy had  also planned  for some time to write an operatic work with that title, based on Verlaine's poems. [2]  For reasons that we do not know, that work was never written, but it may not be too fanciful to suggest that the Sonata became a kind of surrogate mini-opera in its stead. The Suite for two pianos was titled  “ En blanc et noir ” which though usually taken to refer to the colours of piano keys, at the same time could  be an oblique reference to the black and white of the Pierrot costume. 


The Sonata brought full circle, in a sense, the whole collection of works which had some source of inspiration in the pantomime - Fantoches, Masques, Minstrels and “ Boite a Joujoux ” an allegorical ballet with elements of the same frustrated love story - and assumed a kind of valedictory statement of the artist against the world. To quote Wilfrid Mellers again, “ At the end of his life, worn out by disease and the attrition of war, he begins to see through himself, to see that the Mask and Phantom are not enough, cannot be permanently satisfying; he begins to contemplate them ironically. He looks back on his life and sees in it the likeness of a puppet-show, himself, moon-eyed, desiring but perpetually dissatisfied, in the mask of Harlequin.”


However  we regard the conflicting evidence of the Pierrot puzzle, there is, in a sense, every  reason why Pierrot should have been the chosen hero or anti-hero of the plot, fictional or metaphorical, for Pierrot seems, in every age, to be a voice of the Zeitgeist, and to have a curiously world-weary wisdom about him. Mellers : “ It is not surprising that the more isolated modern artist should see in Harlequin the divine Fool, a symbolisation of his own difficulties and nostalgia. ”


Though he wrote this piece with the utmost joy at finding his creative instinct still intact, Debussy's mood was, nonetheless, pessimistic, realising that time and strength were irrevocably slipping away from him.


There was nothing left to do but shake his hollow fist, faché avec la lune....





[1]  S R Littlewood  “ The Story of Pierrot ”


[2]  In a letter of October 1915 to Bernardo Molinari, Debussy says: “ I haven't written much orchestral music, but I have finished: Douze Etudes for piano, a Cello Sonata, and another sonata for flute, viola and harp, in the ancient, flexible mould with none of the grandiloquence of modern sonatas. There are going to be six of them for different groups of instruments and the last one will combine all those used in the previous five. For many people that wont be as important as an opera.... But I thought it was of greater service to music ! ”




Following publication of this article in The Strad Magazine in April - June 1992, two letters were received which throw some more light on points discussed. Rather than change the original article I append the letters which should be read in conjunction with the articles.