The Pierrot Ensembles

Christopher Dromey (email:; web:, The Pierrot Ensembles. PhD thesis, King’s College London, 2011.

The ‘Pierrot ensemble’ of mixed single strings, winds and piano has become standard in contemporary music: yet it has never been categorised or explored historically. In the post-1945 years especially, this novel line-up, derived from Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, Op. 21 (1912), inspired a new, British-led repertory that influenced composition as much as concert life. The Pierrot Players (1967–70) and The Fires of London (1970–87) did most to exploit and experiment with the resources of Pierrot’s line-up. Their dedication to concert music and music theatre is a subject of this chronicle of the Pierrot ensemble, which has vied for attention with other generic types – melodrama, commedia dell’arte, music theatre, the song cycle – ever since Pierrot’s premiere. To uncover Pierrot’s progenies, then, is to scrutinise the historic and generic contexts of a lineage from Schoenberg to Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle and beyond, and this is the task of this study.

The Prologue queries the Pierrot ensemble’s constitution in light of British responses to Schoenberg’s death. The subject’s rich background is then outlined in Part One, whose Introduction draws on existing scholarship to help elucidate how the field should be mapped. Chapter 1 documents how the phenomenon of the work’s earliest performances across Europe obliged groups to form and elicited Pierrot’s first progenies. These included – as shown in the next chapter – Benjamin Britten’s little-known, cinematic Pierrot ensembles. Chapter 3 relocates to wartime London to trace the efforts of certain émigré musicians to showcase Pierrot alongside William Walton’s Façade. Successive chapters on Elisabeth Lutyens’s Concertante for Five Players, Op. 22 and Humphrey Searle’s Society for Twentieth Century Music chart the Pierrot ensemble’s momentum in composition and performance.

Part Two begins by proposing a fresh understanding of the mid-century schism within British music-making, starting with Peter Maxwell Davies’s polemic ‘The Young British Composer’ (1956) and leading to the Wardour Castle Summer Schools (1964/65). These convinced Davies, Harrison Birtwistle and others to form The Pierrot Players. Yet, such were the difficulties of their personal relations that Chapter 7, in particular, is devoted to reappraising the role of Birtwistle. The changed dynamic after his departure from the group sets the scene for Chapter 8, addressing the rebranded Fires of London and Davies’s ever more variegated Pierrot ensembles. The challenges these pose to a genre his groups did much to evolve is advanced in the Epilogue, which also surveys the latest works for the ensemble. Although the study deals, roughly, with the first hundred years of Pierrot, it adds an important chapter to the history of British music of the last half-century.