Moses and Aaron in Paris

Moses and Aaron, Schoenberg’s largest twelve-tone work, was composed between May, 1930, and March, 1932. Although the opera as planned is incomplete, the ending as it stands is in no way truncated, the unwritten third act, to judge from the libretto, containing little promise of further dramatic development. Yet Schoenberg’s failure to compose music for all of his text has been attributed not to unresolvable difficulties in the subject but to the threat of Hitler, a credible hypothesis but a difficult one to prove since the composer could very well have stopped where he did because of a philosophical and artistic impasse. After all, the dilemma of the Moses of the opera is one of the special concerns of all the arts of the age, that of being bound to words, which are instruments of falsehood.

The opera has also been accepted as an expression of its composer’s religious beliefs, an interpretation that Schoenberg’s correspondence of the time tends to confirm. After the Hitler years, however, these beliefs changed, and to the extent that if the composition had been begun in 1945, Schoenberg, whose sympathies by then were Zionist, might have found more to embrace in Aaron’s activist philosophy than in Moses’ idealist one.

The first complete performance—in March, 1954, nearly three years after the composer’s death—was not staged, partly because of which a mistaken belief emerged that the opera was not theatrical and could as well be presented in concert form. The initial staging, in Zurich in 1957, was followed by others in Berlin, London, Boston (Sarah Caldwell), Dusseldorf, Vienna, and now Paris, which last, perhaps more than all the others, will establish the work in the international repertory.

French is obviously the wrong language. When Covent Garden gave the opera in English George Steiner objected that “[Schoenberg’s German] words are not less ‘fully composed, musicalized’ than the music,” and French, of course, as sound and prosody, is that much more remote again from the original. Yet despite all handicaps the French translation not only preserved a high proportion of Schoenberg’s rhythmic values but was in some instances superior to the English. Moses’ “Ich kann denken/aber nicht reden,” for example, is hardly the same as “thought is easy/speech is laborious,” which also happens to be the opposite of the truth. “Capable de penser/incapable de parler” does convey the sense, at least, though it seems to suggest that Moses suffers from a speech defect. (In the Bible Aaron is the stammerer, but Schoenberg makes him fluent, transforming the impediment to Moses, albeit in mental rather than in physical form.) The meaning is vital, moreover, being no less than the dramatic theme of the opera reduced to the simplest form.

Much is to be said in extenuation of the Opéra’s decision to produce the work in French. Dr. Steiner’s argument against the necessity of translation was that “the story of Exodus is known to everyone and …

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Letters

Moses and Chopin January 24, 1974