Pierrot, as it is also known, has a characteristic ensemble, hereafter renowned and known as the "Pierrot ensemble", consisting of flute (doubling on a piccolo), clarinet (doubling on bass clarinet), violin (doubling on viola), cello, and a piano. The solo soprano sings the poems in the Sprechstimme style, which complements the mood of the poems aurally.
Its debut was in 1912 - the show took to the road throughout Germany and Austria later in 1912, with mixed reviews.
"Pierrot Lunaire" consists of three groups of seven poems with each poem being of two four-line verses followed by a five-line verse, and each begins and ends with the same line. Schoenberg plays the role of the puppeteer through the character Pierrot, a traditional lovesick and petulant character from the commedia dell'arte style of Italian theatre. The work has many contradictions: the instrumentalists are soloists and the orchestra at the same time, for example. Pierrot is both hero and fool, acting in a drama that is also a concert piece, performing cabaret as high art and vice versa, and doing it with song that is also speech.
The work was composed for an ensemble of performers that is different from the traditional chamber groups and became known as the "Pierrot Ensemble". The exact instrumentation of each song is varied constantly so that no two successive numbers have the exact same tone colors. Schoenberg also used the technique of klangfarbenmelodie in this work, as well as using innovative musical techniques in order to add some kind of structure between the poems. With tonality, such structure would be trivial to produce because of expected resolution in tonal music, however with atonality, this is more difficult. One such solution was for Schoenberg to use ostinato patterns to aid in the creation of such aural structure and divisions between the work.
Pierrot's yearnings and aspirations heightens every emotion to the ultimate degree, and the expressionistic settings with their echoes of German cabaret and musical parodies bring the text vividly to life. In Part I, Pierrot, under the influence of the moon, fantasizes about love, sex and religion. In Part II, Pierrot is in a nightmare underworld of violence, crime and blasphemy. Part III finds Pierrot heading home to Bergamo, with his past haunting him. Schoenberg uses Sprechtstimme for the first time in this work - a "speaking" voice which uses rhythms but no definite pitches.
He also uses a variety of older forms, including canon and fugue, rondeau, passacaglia and free counterpoint. The poetry is a German version of a rondeau of the old French type with a double refrain. Each poem consists of three stanzas of 4 + 4 + 5 lines, with line 1 a Refrain (A) repeated as line 7 and line 13, and line 2 a second Refrain (B) repeated for line 8. Schoenberg varies the instrumentation so that no two poems sound alike -the entire ensemble plays only in the last poem. A canon is a composition with strict counterpiont in which each voice exactly imitates the previous voice at a fixed distance. The work is atonal, but not twelve-tone as Schoenberg did not begin experimenting with twelve-tone music until later in his career.