Lunaire Variations  (2012) for solo piano - 14'

-Commissioned by San Francisco Performances for Jonathan Biss

Program Notes

Lunaire Variations is part of my project to write piano works inspired by Arnold Schoenberg’s ground-breaking Pierrot Lunaire. This installment draws from the last book of seven songs of Pierrot. This year, 2012, is the hundredth anniversary of its premiere, and few pieces of music fire up my imagination as much as Schoenberg’s Modernist masterpiece.

Rather than Schoenberg’s music, it was the text that influenced me most, especially the juxtaposition of wispy ethereal imagery with grotesquely macabre fantasy. I use “variations” not in the traditional musical sense- music based on the same motive or melody or ground bass- but on the vivid themes and ideas of the words of Pierrot. However, each variation begins and ends with the same motive. This motive nods to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone language without in any way being a twelve-tone piece.

Some of the ideas on which the variations are based are abstract, as in the first movement, where the character of Pierrot sighs with distant nostalgia, or the sixth movement where he rides home on a lily pad steered by moonbeams. Some of the ideas are grotesque, as in the second movement where Pierrot drills a hole in his rival’s skull to fashion it into a tobacco pipe, or in the fifth movement where he decides to put down his viola and play with his enormous bow on his rival’s bald spot. There is some pathos, too: the third movement describes a woman who has grown old waiting for Pierrot to come to her, only to be mocked by the moon for vainly waiting. The last movement is from the point of view of the narrator who smells an ancient perfume and thinks of a happy time of a fabled, fairy tale past (simply, and away from the dark themes of Pierrot).

The Lunaire Variations was commissioned by San Francisco Performances for Jonathan Biss. Jonathan is an incomparable artist and I am humbled and honored to write this work for him to play. He is also an incomparable friend, and I offer this piece with warm wishes for his incredible continued success.


“…he provided just the right mix of polish, brittleness and macabre humor in David Ludwig’s “Lunaire Variations”: true to its title, a charming and imaginative set of seven variations on the last book of Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire.” –NYTimes

“The fourth movement (“Moonspot”), in which the clown desperately tries to remove a spot of moonlight from his new coat, was perhaps one of the most ethereal and charming. Ludwig created the glow of moonlight by exploiting the upper harmonics of the piano, as well as Biss’ ability to let melodies float hauntingly, particularly at the end of slow movements.” –Bachtrack