Commentary Magazine


Musical Hebraism

Last December, more than fifteen years after the composer’s death, Arnold Schoenberg’s unfinished opera Moses and Aaron was given a belated American premiere by the Opera Company of Boston. The occasion was full of ironies. The performance, which took place in America’s historic citadel of high culture, was staged in a shabby one-time movie palace; the impresario was Missouri-born and Arkansas-reared; the work itself, a twelve-tone opera glorifying Jewish monotheism, was written by a Jew who had become Lutheran but returned to Judaism. As a further affront to Boston’s traditions, the opera contained an orgy scene which, in another day, would certainly have been banned.

Producing Moses and Aaron demands immense resources. Sarah Caldwell, the artistic director whose previous productions of other seldom-heard works have put Boston on the national operatic map, assembled for Moses and Aaron a cast which included: two stars—a bass-baritone for the role of Moses {Donald Gramm, one of the Metropolitan Opera’s best acting singers) and a tenor to sing Aaron (Richard Lewis, who sang the role in the British production of 1965); twenty singing principals; a chorus of fifty-five sopranos, mezzos, and altos, and forty-eight tenors, baritones, and basses; forty-five actors and dancers; and members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Osbourne McConathy. What with seventy Elders, twelve Tribal Chieftains, four Naked Virgins (not to speak of the Golden Calf), and who knows how many supernumeraries, it is no surprise the production cost $300,000. (Boston has a tradition of sorts for big musical settings. In 1869, to celebrate the National Peace Jubilee, ten thousand singers, a thousand musicians, and a hundred firemen beating anvils with sledge hammers, performed the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore.)

_____________

 

Both the libretto and the music of Moses and Aaron are fully Schoenberg’s creation.1 As to the music, it is a complex contrapuntal composition whose absorbing twelve-tone structure and atonality serve to enhance and amplify the terror and awe of the libretto. The opera opens with God’s summons to Moses before the Burning Bush, as told in Exodus 3-4. The Voice from the Burning Bush (sung by six solo voices behind the stage and a six-part speaking chorus) calls Moses to bring the Israelites the message of the One God and to lead them to freedom. Moses pleads that he is unfit; because he is slow of speech and of a slow tongue, the people will not believe him. God promises that He will perform wondrous things to convince the people of Moses’s message. Aaron will be Moses’s spokesman to the people.

In the next scene the brothers confront one another (Exodus 4:27-28). Text and music stress the discrepancy between word and image, thought and feeling, idea and myth. Moses speaks earnestly, in inflected, accented speech (Sprechstimme), while Aaron sings sensuous floating melodies, florid, with a hint of the cantorial. Aaron fails utterly to understand the new and religiously revolutionary basis of Moses’s monotheism—that man’s reward lies in his freedom to act righteously. Instead, he translates this idea back to the pagan concepts of reward for obedience to the gods and punishment for disobedience.

In the third scene, against nervous orchestral runs, the Israelites exchange fearsome rumors about the impending arrival of Moses and Aaron. The intricate contrapuntal choral composition gives expression to their fears and superstitions, and to the divisions among them. In the closing scene of Act I, Moses and Aaron bring God’s message (Exodus 4:29-31). The Israelites at first mock the new God who cannot be seen or heard. As Moses despairs of his ability to communicate his message, Aaron performs “the signs in the sight of the people.” He turns Moses’s rod into a serpent, and back into a rod; Moses’s hand becomes leprous and then whole again; the Nile waters turn into blood. (In the Boston production, all these actions were pantomimed.) “And the people believed.” The act closes with a rapturous hymnal chorus in marching tempo as the Israelites go off into the desert wasteland: “We are His chosen folk before all others,/We are the chosen ones,/Him alone to worship,/Him alone to serve.”

Between the end of Act I and the choral interlude that precedes Act II, the Jews have left Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, and journeyed into the desert. Moses has ascended Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:18). The Israelites fear that Moses and his God have abandoned them. The small chorus whispers its anxiety in hushed tones: “Where is Moses? Where is his God?” The musical theme recalls God’s promise to Moses, but its repetitive syncopated staccato heightens doubt and insecurity.

Act II opens to show the disarray in the Israelite camp in the forty days since Moses’s ascent. Violence and lewdness prevail; the seventy Elders can no longer exercise authority. The people turn on them savagely, demanding their old gods back. The fearful elders turn to Aaron for direction. Unsure of himself, he yields quickly.

The jubilation begins, introduced by great fanfares. The Golden Calf (Exodus 32:3-6) is brought onstage. The stupendous scene of “The Golden Calf and the Altar” is, according to Karl Wörner’s analysis, a symphony in five movements for solo voices and choruses. It opens with a ritualistic dance of the slaughterers who prepare the animal sacrifices; then follow worshipful processions of the sick, the poor, and the old. The music has an eerie, abnormal character. Fanfares introduce the tribal leaders who come to pay homage to the Golden Calf. The tempo accelerates. When a youth exhorts the Israelites to remember their religion of freedom, and to destroy “the image of temporality,” the tribal leaders murder him, to a fury of brass and drum. Then a gentle swaying dance tempo is heard as the people begin to exchange gifts and kindnesses. But coarseness and drunkenness soon overtake them. The priestly ritual begins: the four Naked Virgins give themselves to the embrace of the priests who then sacrifice them upon the altar to the Golden Calf. Music and action intensify in a frenzy of syncopated tension, ending in a percussive, delirious finale.

As the killing, self-destruction, and sexual debauchery come to an end and the sacrificial fires are extinguished, a voice from afar proclaims that Moses is descending from the mountain. Moses appears and destroys the Golden Calf with these words: “Begone, you image of powerlessness to enclose the boundless in an image finite!” The brothers confront each other. Moses demands an explanation. Aaron justifies himself: he loves his people—“I live just for them and want to sustain them.” Moses insists that his love is for the idea of the One God. Aaron answers that the common people can comprehend only part of that idea, the perceivable part, that they need feeling and hope. Moses refuses to “debase” his idea; he will remain faithful to it, as it is set forth in the tablets. Aaron counters that the tablets, too, are images, “just part of the whole idea.” At that, Moses smashes the tablets. (In Exodus 32:19-20, Moses smashes the tablets first, then destroys the golden calf.) In despair, he asks God to relieve him of his mission, as Aaron chides him for faintheartedness. Then the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day appear, and the people follow it in religious ecstasy. Aaron explains that “the Infinite thus shows not Himself, but shows the way to Him and the way to the Promised Land.” Once again believing in, and reconciled to, their chosenness, the Israelites sing the march-like hymn with which Act I closed. But Moses sinks to the ground, despairing of the possibility of expressing the idea of the inconceivable God. The violins sustain taut legatos of unbearable poignancy as Moses cries out in defeat: “O word, thou word, that I lack!”

Schoenberg’s text for the unfinished third act departs rather drastically from the biblical original. Aaron, a prisoner in chains, is dragged in by soldiers. Moses calls him to account for having betrayed God’s word, wrought miracles, believed in the physical reality of a land flowing with milk and honey, and given the people false gods. Now, Moses charges, Aaron has disobeyed God’s word by smiting the rock, instead of speaking to it, to make the waters of Meribah flow. (In a letter to Walter Eidlitz in 1933, Schoenberg complained about “incomprehensible contradictions in the Bible” which made it difficult for him to complete the act. He was referring to the variants in Exodus 19:5-6 and Numbers 20:7-12.) When the soldiers ask to kill Aaron, Moses orders them to “set him free, and if he can,/he shall live.” But Aaron, freed, falls dead.

_____________

 

There is in Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron an almost uncanny intuition of the meaning of biblical Judaism and of Moses’s historic role as the founder of Israelite monotheism. It is doubtful whether Schoenberg read any serious scholarly literature on the subject; in any case, much of what was then available had been written under the influence of Wellhausen and the higher critics who dated Israel’s ethical monotheism from the later period of classical prophecy. Schoenberg’s artistic conception, on the other hand, is essentially traditionalist (and quite in accord with recent archaeological findings and modern scholarship), and it is thus interesting to speculate on how he arrived at his position. He was quite obviously not a fundamentalist, of either a Jewish or Christian variety, and had been remote from traditional Jewish thought. Is this operatic exaltation of monotheism and condemnation of idolatry to be seen then as a confession of Jewish identity? Or did he perhaps undertake it as a celebration of Jewish morality, at a time when European society was poised at the brink of pagan violence and destruction?

Schoenberg completed the first two acts of Moses and Aaron in March 1932. While he was still at work on the third act, the Reichstag voted dictatorial power to Hitler. Dismissed from his post at the Prussian Academy of Arts, Schoenberg left Berlin for America. On July 24, 1933, in a simple ceremony at the Liberal Synagogue of Paris, he was readmitted to the Jewish community. (His two witnesses were David Marianoff, Albert Einstein’s son-in-law, and Marc Chagall.) On October 16, 1933, he wrote to Alban Berg: “As you have doubtless realized, my return to the Jewish religion took place long ago and is indeed demonstrated in some of my published work . . . and in Moses and Aaron.. . .”2

Schoenberg himself considered his return to Judaism to be a political rather than a religious act. Yet such matters are seldom as simple as one would like to believe; indeed, the complex twists of Schoenberg’s own life would indicate that religion and politics cannot in his case be easily separated, and that faith and identity, self-esteem and group pride, all played a part in the formulation of his final intellectual and emotional position.

_____________

 

Schoenberg was born in Leopoldstadt, Vienna’s Jewish quarter, on September 13, 1874. His father, Samuel, a shopkeeper, had come from Pressburg, the stronghold of Jewish Orthodoxy in Hungary. No doubt Samuel Schoenberg had brought some Jewish traditions and practices with him when he migrated to the big city. Until his death in 1889, when Arnold was fifteen, the family still observed the Jewish holidays, according to Gertud Schoenberg, the composer’s widow, with whom I spoke last year in California. It is unlikely that Schoenberg himself had any Jewish education.

At the age of seventeen, Schoenberg began working in a bank, and at the same time continued his self-education in music and composition. Around 1895, as a cellist in an amateur student orchestra in Vienna, he met the conductor Alexander von Zemlinsky, who became interested in his compositions. In 1901 Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde (she died in 1923).

In 1898, at twenty-four, to his family’s deep shock, Schoenberg became a Lutheran. No one knows exactly why he converted. His cousin, Hans Nachod, says that Schoenberg was persuaded to make the move by a singer friend, but Gertrud Schoenberg probably was closer to the truth in maintaining that his conversion was prompted by cultural rather than by religious motives; it was, she said, “quite a usual procedure for educated Jews as the belief in assimilation at this time flourished.”

Schoenberg’s parents had come to Vienna during the great Jewish migration from the hinterlands of Galicia, Hungary, and Bohemia, after the enactment of the 1867 Constitution which erased the legal inequities under which Jews had suffered. In thirty years, from 1860 to 1890, the Jewish population of Vienna rose from one to twelve per cent. Jews flocked to the gymnasia and the universities, where they were overwhelmingly concentrated in the faculties of law and medicine. They also went into journalism—en masse, it seemed to the Austrians. Yet though (or because) Jews shaped Vienna’s literary and artistic tastes, anti-Semitism continued to prevail in most professional, academic, and government circles, even before Karl Lueger became Bürger-meister and Christian Socialism a vehicle for political anti-Semitism. At a time when a birth certificate should have sufficed, many positions still required proof of baptism. Freud, for example, a privatdozent for seventeen years, was kept from being appointed associate professor at the University of Vienna, according to Ernest Jones, by “the anti-Semitic attitude in official quarters. . . .”

The keys to musical Vienna were similarly held by men who did not like to open doors to Jews. Mahler’s baptism, in 1897, constituted his ticket of admission to the directorship of the Vienna Opera. It seems entirely likely that Schoenberg, too, became a Christian in order to have easier access to important musical institutions and influential musicians. Perhaps like others of his generation and upbringing, who stood neither here nor there in their Jewishness, he was attracted to what must have seemed the dazzlingly brilliant cultural life of the non- and ex-Jewish intellectuals, poets, composers, and artists. (Schoenberg was also a painter, active in the Expressionist movement and a participant in the Blaue Reiter exhibition of 1912.) Among themselves, young Jewish cosmopolitans often attributed Vienna’s accelerating anti-Semitism to the bearded traditionalist Jews who had migrated from the Galician towns and villages with their baggage of poverty, Orthodoxy, and Yiddish. For many, the baptismal waters represented a means of escaping identification with these Jews.

Religion—Judaism or Evangelical Lutheranism—meant little to Schoenberg in the time following his conversion. One of his biographers has characterized it as a period of “positivistic atheism.” Later he developed an interest in Swedenborgian ideas. Schoenberg himself described this process in a letter to the German poet, Richard Dehmel, December 13, 1912: “For a long time I have been wanting to write an oratorio on the following subject: modern man, having passed through materialism, socialism, and anarchy, and despite having been an atheist, still having in him some residue of ancient faith (in the form of superstition), wrestles with God (see also Strindberg’s ‘Jacob Wrestling’) and finally succeeds in finding God and becoming religious.”

_____________

 

Dehmel could not provide the poetic text Schoenberg wanted. Eventually, using Balzac’s now quite unknown theosophical novel, Seraphita, Schoenberg began composing both text and music for the oratorio, Die Jakobsleiter.3 The work contained suggestions of ideas he was later to use in Moses and Aaron: “this Either and this Or,” “instincts” versus “commandments,” spirit versus matter. But Schoenberg never finished Die Jakobsleiter. For one thing he was drafted into Franz Josef’s army where he became a Kappellmeister. Later, groping his way back toward Judaism, and more rigorous in his religious thinking, he may have become uneasy with alien and pseudo-literary texts and have decided to turn to more appropriate and authentic ones.

In 1922 a small incident set Schoenberg on an irrevocable course back to Jewishness and Judaism. At a resort in Mattsee near Salzburg, where he had gone to spend the summer, he was told that Jews were not welcome. He came to realize that the Christian promise to accept Jews at the price of assimilation (read: conversion) was a fraud. “For I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me during this year, and I shall never forget it,” he wrote to Wassily Kandinsky. “It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but I am a Jew.”

In a second letter to Kandinsky, May 4, 1923, in which he referred to “that man Hitler” who would make no exception even for a “good” Jew like himself, Schoenberg prophesied that though the anti-Semites would try to “exterminate” Einstein, Mahler, and himself, they would not succeed with those “much tougher elements thanks to whose endurance Jewry has maintained itself unaided against the whole of mankind for twenty centuries. For these are evidently so constituted that they can accomplish the task that their God has imposed on them: to survive in exile, uncorrupted and unbroken, until the hour of salvation comes!”

Thereafter, Schoenberg’s immersion in Jewish themes seemed inevitable. Until his death in 1951, Jewish subject matter continued to attract him. In 1926-27 he worked on a play, Der biblische Weg, which he said had been “conceived in 1922 or ’23 at the latest”—that is, at the very time his self-esteem rebelled at German anti-Semitism. The drama, in his own words, was “a very up-to-date treatment of the story of how the Jews became a people.” Its protagonist, Max Aruns (Moses and Aaron in one), attempts to unite his people and lead them to the fulfillment of their God-given mission. But dissidents beat him to death and his leadership falls to another. Der biblische Weg foreshadowed the dramatic core and conflict of Moses and Aaron. Thus, Asseino (from “Sinai”?), the spokesman of traditional Jewry, speaks to Max Aruns:

Max Aruns, you want to be Moses and Aaron in one person! Moses, to whom God gave the idea but denied the gift of speech; and Aaron, who could not grasp the idea but could formulate it and move the masses.

Thenceforth, the idea of an opera about Moses and Aaron seized Schoenberg’s imagination. On April 10, 1930, he wrote to Alban Berg that after a year of “very strenuous work,” he needed a holiday and he was playing tennis instead of working. (Oscar Levant said Schoenberg once told him that if he had not been a composer he would have liked to have been a champion tennis player.) At the end of the letter, he said he would like best to do an opera; “. . . perhaps I shall do Moses and Aaron.” By August 1930 he was already at work on it. He completed the second act just as National Socialism stood at Germany’s threshold.

Theodor W. Adorno has suggested that the composition of Moses and Aaron was Schoenberg’s defense against the rise of Hitler. (Hence the fall of the Third Reich eliminated the need to complete the opera.) This must surely have been a major motive. The figure of Moses served to reinforce Schoenberg’s Jewish self-esteem, to strengthen his rejection of the world that National Socialism was then fashioning in Europe, a world governed by superstition, violence, and bloodshed. (Something akin to this motive probably animated Freud’s interest in Moses as well.) It has also been suggested that Schoenberg saw himself as the revolutionary herald of a new musical law—atonality—and identified his own lack of popular success with Moses’s failure to communicate with the people. I myself, however, prefer to think that Schoenberg intended Moses and Aaron as a challenge—musically, philosophically, politically, and culturally—to Wagner’s Parsifal, the only other religious music drama to which it might legitimately be compared.

The two operas are total opposites. Musically, Wagner was the last great Romantic, while Schoenberg, the great adversary of Romanticism, advocated musical cerebralism and classicism. Philosophically, or theologically, Moses and Aaron and Parsifal appear to represent the antagonism between Judaism and Christianity, between monotheism and trinitarianism. Parsifal, Wagner’s version of the legend of the Holy Grail, glorifies compassion and repentance through Christ. It is religious drama in that it leads from conflict to a renewal of faith and a restatement of religious values.

Yet notwithstanding its exaltation of Christianity, Parsifal remains pseudo-religious; it is not genuinely Christian. Wagner hardly identified himself as a Christian, in part because he could not accept Christianity’s Jewish origins: “For us it is sufficient to derive the ruin of the Christian religion from its drawing upon Judaism for the elaboration of its dogma.” Rather, he defined the Holy Grail as the spiritual aspect of the Nibelungen hoard, Amfortas with the German Kaiser, Parsifal with Siegfried. He wrote once that “the abstract highest God of the Germans, Wotan, did not really need to yield place to the God of the Christians; rather could he be completely identified with him. . . . Christianity has been unable in our day to extirpate the local native gods.” Thus, Wagner’s Christianity turns out to be Teutonic paganism; as others have pointed out, Parsifal is not a religious Christian drama but the fifth opera in the Ring, welding Teutonic paganism, medieval Christianity, and modern German nationalism into one romantic Gesamtkuntswerk, a stage-consecrational-festival play.

It is, I think, plausible that Schoenberg felt the need to define himself in opposition to this kind of German Christianity, which was, at different levels of consciousness, inextricably associated with paganism and idolatry. Perhaps, in Moses and Aaron, he wished not only to surpass Wagner as a composer, but also to distinguish himself decisively from the Wagner who was a Christian-pagan, German nationalist, and anti-Semite, and from the rising Nazi culture that Wagner would have applauded. Thus, Moses and Aaron, the vehicle through which Schoenberg asserted his Jewishness, comes to symbolize the antithesis of everything that Parsifal represents, a re-assertion of the intrinsic and superior value of Jewish monotheism—in itself, for Schoenberg, the purest concept of belief.

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 The complete libretto, in German and in Allen Forte's English translation, appears in Karl H. Wörner, Schoenberg's “Moses and Aaron” (London: Faber and Faber, 1965) and also in Columbia's recording, K31-241.

2 This and other quotations are from Arnold Schoenberg, Letters, ed. Erwin Stein, St. Martin's Press, 1965.

3 Dr. Dika Newlin, who studied with Schoenberg, wrote about Die Jakobsleiter in a program booklet on the occasion of its London premiere, November 1965.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.