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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…a brief outline would have given an English-speaking audience all the help it wants.” But Dr. Steiner was speaking for himself. Most of us require more help than that and of a less elevated kind than he provides: “The twelve-tone system is related in point of sensibility and psychological context to the imaginative radicalism…of Cantor’s mathematics or Wittgenstein’s epistemology.” (How, one might ask?)

An audience accustomed not to understand the foreign language of an opera—having accepted the claims of “cultural unity” and the integrity of verbal and musical rhythms and sounds—is more likely to tolerate that language when sung than when spoken. In Moses and Aaron, however, speaking voices are crucial. And though Exodus is indeed well known, and though a synopsis of Schoenberg’s libretto should take no more than a minute or two to read, the opera lasts an hour and a half, during which the audience’s perception at every level depends on understanding not only the story but the words. (For this reason Schoenberg, in his later American years, began to favor translations—even of Pierrot lunaire, in which the words contribute as much to the color of the music as do the instrumental timbres.) I daresay that if Moses and Aaron had been performed in German at the Opéra, an exodus of quite general proportions would have occurred within a quarter of an hour.

Nor is the verbal argument easily inferable from the action, some of whose main events take place offstage, and, as in the case of the Flight from Egypt, between the acts. The essential drama is internal, its action a philosophical debate whose staging should embody and give dramatic representation to the principal ideas. This is not to say that the opera lacks theatrical spectacle; on the contrary, its longest scene, that of the Golden Calf, is on the scale of, and even looks something like, the Triumphal March from Aida combined with the Bacchanale from Tannhäuser. Furthermore, the work uses traditional operatic structures and models: its principals, for example, both individually and as a pair, are indebted for some of their features to Wotan and Loge, while the Sacrificial Virgins and descendants, musically speaking, of Wagner’s Flower Maidens. The dramaturgical form, too, respects customary divisions of scenes and their subdivisions—solos, ensembles, choruses, interludes. Finally, the shape of the whole is symmetrical, Moses’ inner journey returning him to his starting point, a perfect ending even though not the one Schoenberg intended.

Schoenberg also exploits many kinds of conventions, ranging from simple matters of style, such as the use of ostinati in the dances, to musical imagery on the order of the Bach cantatas. Thus Moses ponders the nature of the “Omnipresent but Invisible One” on a single repeated note, while Aaron articulates his abiding thought—“He has chosen us folk before all other people”—on the twelve pitches of the series. (One per tribe, no doubt.) The symbolism has another stratum, too, in that the brothers voice their minds simultaneously, as they do while exposing their articles of belief in the opera’s first scene, thus implying that the two prophets are projections of different sides of the same divided self, as well as separate persons.

Revelation in the Old Testament is aural—the Word of God, not His Image. (In the New Testament it is visual—Logos, the Word Incarnate—which must be one of the most profound distinctions between Judaism and Christianity.) I dolatry is visual, and Schoenberg’s Moses, unlike the Scriptural one, rejects as idolatrous every visual manifestation of God including the Pillar of Fire, that “God-sent signal,” as Aaron calls it. The Burning Bush itself, the theophany that marks the entrance into history of the Israelites as a nation and entrusts its destiny to Moses, only succeeds in filling the Moses of the opera with negative vibes. Aaron, of course, relies on the visual. Thus when Moses returns from Sinai—which the Talmud defines as “the mountain from which hostility [sinah] to idolatry descended”—destroys the Golden Calf, and cries out to his errant brother asking what he has done, Aaron vainly replies: “I worked marvels for eyes and ears to witness.”

The God of Schoenberg’s Moses is “inconceivable” as well as invisible, however, a paradox that engaged conceptualizing, semiotic-minded French critics far more than the opera itself or its performance. The theological background was discussed on television by the Grand Rabbi of Paris, Zadoc Kahn (whose rabbinate, incidentally, had prepared a new translation of the relevant excerpts from Exodus for the program booklet). And, from another perspective, the Dominican scholar, François Refoulé, gave the opinion (Le Monde, September 29) that Schoenberg’s God resembled the deity of neo-Platonic philosophy more than He did the One of Abraham and Jacob. Moses’ final speech denouncing Aaron, his mouthpiece, as “an image, too, false, as an image must be,” reminded Father Refoulé of Plotinus, for whom “le concept formé par l’entendement pour cerner la divinité est encore une idole.”

All of which assumes that the Moses and Aaron of the opera are their namesakes in the Bible, that Schoenberg is speaking through them in the first person, and, in short, that the composer has not exercised artistic prerogatives. But the truth is that for Schoenberg, as for the rest of us, Exodus was a departure. The prophets in the opera are very different from their biblical counterparts. At the same time, the opera’s Aaron is to some extent the biblical Moses’ “rib,” Schoenberg having formed the second-born from the first much as Eve was created from Adam. Furthermore, in addition to transplanting a share of Moses’ inner qualities into his brother, Schoenberg credits the prodigies which Moses works in Exodus to Aaron—a great stroke of dramatic verisimilitude on the composer’s part for Aaron is a “natural” charlatan.

Thus reconstituted, the brothers become prototypes of the Mosaic and the Aaronic—of the mystic and the politician, for example, as well as of innumerable variants. And thus the opera itself might be classified as Aaronic, since Moses does not believe that the Word of his inconceivable God can be transmitted to a misunderstanding people even by oral means. Aaron, on the other hand, might be identified with Zionism—“Israel endures,” he sings in the final scene—and certainly his ends-justifying-means philosophy is more likely to appeal to pragmatists today than is Moses’ almost perversely pure transcendentalism, for the new Moses, without his Aaronic side, loves cogitation and contemplation more than he loves the people.

Schoenberg translates the theological into the musico-dramatic, and Moses’ paradox into the human tragedy of isolation. The tragedy is without catharsis for him, though his people, and the audience, experience it in the orgies inspired by the Golden Calf. The ideological oppositions between the brothers—represented by a variety of musical devices but primarily by having Moses speak and Aaron sing—are never resolved, and the opera concludes, as it began, in Moses’ dualities: thought versus speech (the Word of God versus the interpretation of the Word), the spiritual versus the material, a purely spiritual religion versus a religion for the people.

Of all the stagings that the opera has had, the one at the Paris Opéra was least likely to be rated X. Even so, the orgies should have been still more drastically curtailed. The eventual solution to the staging of this scene must involve cinematography, Schoenberg’s requirements being either too difficult to meet (“processions of camels”) or downright impossible (“four virgins”). The opera was composed in the era of the Hollywood biblical extravaganza, and it is not farfetched to suppose that Schoenberg envisioned some of the camera stunts of the De Mille epic. What other explanation can account for stage directions that require the slinging about of entrails and the sloshing of blood, and which instruct people to “leap into the fire and run burning across the stage”? Only once did the audience wince, however, during the slaughter of those “virgins,” and that because of the crudeness of the descriptive musical effect—a stab from the horns and an “expiring” glissando of the violins—rather than at the scenic “horrors.”

Schoenberg acknowledged his remoteness from the art of the dance and his inability to imagine suitable choreographic movements for the Golden Calf tableau. This helps to account for but does not excuse a nondescript and amateurish procession around the idol, and a ballet of knife-flashing butchers reminding one of Caucasian swordsmen. The “naked” girls were at least professional dancers, but of the Folies Bergères kind, to judge by their movements and evident discomfort in wearing more clothing than during regular working hours. (The Inspecteur des Moeurs, splitting a pubic hair, had at first demanded rasoirs—shades of the punishment for female collaborationists!) At a certain point, when a mass of bodies à la Bouguereau was piled against the Golden Calf, the top torso dangling just out of plucking range, one felt that paroxysms of laughter were being held back only by Schoenberg’s music. The other crowd scenes were cramped, leaving no elbow room for the people to vacillate between the two leaders in deed as well as in thought. But the music requires an unusually large chorus, and one section of it was already stationed in the orchestra pit.

The production was bizarre in other ways, too. Whereas the blackout in the first scene was a piece of successful symbolism—in the sense of Tolstoy’s “Power of Darkness,” that awareness of the lack of understanding of words is the beginning of knowledge—the second scene, owing to a solar-shaped disc of background light, and to a tilted surface on which the two prophets groped like astronauts reacting to the change of gravity, might, for no logical reason, have been on the moon. The same set, glaringly lighted and unmistakably intended to represent a Middle East desert, served for the rest of the opera. But this was a major mistake, implying as it did that the deliverance from captivity, the issue at the end of the first act, must have failed and that the Israelites are still on the wrong side of the Red Sea. Another drawback was that a hillock in Act One had to make do for Mt. Sinai in Act Two, therefore, through familiarity, weakening the effect of Moses’ descent at the end of the opera. Either a mountain should have been made out of this molehill or the scenery relandscaped, but a change was needed, if only to indicate the passage of time.

The costumes and props were hardly less peculiar. Exodus is explicit: “finetwined linen,” “gold, blue, purple, and scarlet” garments, “wreathen chains fastened in…ouches of gold.” This is not to say that the drama should be furnished realistically. But with the exception of a Father Time Moses, the production at the Opéra was pseudobiblical, pictorially speaking, an illustrated Sunday School New Testament (no peoths or tsitsiths here!). And the Moses was not only out of place in his New Year’s party costume, but was grievously miscast as well, and in consequence vociferously and cruelly booed by the knowing young. An actor instead of a musician, he was unable to negotiate the rhythms and pitch-inflections, to say nothing of the one all-important phrase, “Purify thy thinking,” that the score requires him to sing. Finally, he was also the wrong actor. Quite apart from the inaptness of Comédie Française as a substitute for Sprechstimme, he was never a commanding presence, and so far from being lacerated by that conflict between “penser” and “parler,” much of the time he seemed merely befuddled.

As for the props, the Tablets of the Law were remarkably frangible—no doubt to indicate the ease with which the actual Commandments are broken—while Moses’ rod in serpent form could neither slither nor coil being rigidly jointed. If the Golden Calf failed to impress, however, the fault—gilt—is that of the Opéra itself. The animal might have come straight out of the “woodwork,” or been carved or melted down from it, and whatever the idol’s actual size, it was cowed by the Opéra. One imagines baubles of this kind in Texas, but solid twenty-four carat ones, being awarded for prize-winning livestock.

Not much was said in Paris about the music—or for that matter ever has been said, except for analyses of Schoenberg’s system of combining pitches. But something more elementary is needed, including an introduction to Schoenberg’s sound. This can be found in works of approximately the same period, such as the a cappella choruses and especially the Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene, which resembles the opera not only in instrumentation and rhythmic and melodic style but also in nervous intensity, that in extremis which is Schoenberg’s normal state. Yet the music of Moses is theatrical before all else, and however technically ingenious the whispered double-fugue choral Interlude, its most remarkable aspects are its function in the dramatic architecture and its theatrical prescience—for it anticipates electronic music and multiple speakers by two decades, and so strikingly that a performance with these means would hardly seem an anachronism.

The program booklet included a mini-thematic guide with motives for the “Burning Bush,” the “Desert,” and the “Israelites,” as well as for “Hope” and “Joy.” One wonders whether the last two were recognized as such. True, their interval structure trades to a degree on clichés for these emotions in older music, though how much, if any, of this heredity survives in Schoenberg’s new contexts is disputable. So is the question of the “emotional range” of Schoenberg’s music, which one apologist has equated with that of Beethoven’s. But surely the emotions themselves are too different to compare, and it would be a futile exercise to look for semblances of those of Beethoven in the language Schoenberg has evolved to dramatize the passions of Moses and Aaron.

The languages of the two composers are comparable, however, since they can be broken down into quantifiable elements and the linguistic limitations determined. Thus the instrumental combinations in the Schoenberg opera are infinitely greater than are those in a Mozart opera, yet Schoenberg’s superior sound spectrum lacks the simple power of strong contrasts that Mozart is able to wield by means of his harmonic system, turning a mood around with a simple shift of key or even a single pivot note in a modulation; Schoenberg, whose harmonic language includes none of these same functions, must set each event in motion by vastly more complex means. Which is not an invidious value statement, however, but simply a differentiation. If Schoenberg’s new language cannot give musical form to a Cherubino, it is also not required to, Schoenberg’s world not having bred such a character. His protagonists are an anguished prophet and a troubled people, and he evokes them in music of dazzling invention and an utterly new emotion.

Judged strictly by theatrical standards, Moses and Aaron must be counted as less of a triumph for Rolf Liebermann’s new regime at the Paris Opéra than was the recent Solti-Strehler Marriage of Figaro. But it would be difficult to imagine a more satisfying realization of Mozart’s liaisons dangereuses (until, that is, the opera suddenly falls into commedia dell’arte). Having established the true hatred “below-stairs” in the first scene, Strehler did not continue to look for presentiments of the Revolution under every bed. He did look in a few of them, however, for signs of the moral and sexual revolutions that had been taking place inside the Protected World since the Regency and Marivaux, and found them, with more novelty in the person of Cherubino than in that of the inconstant husband. What Cherubino wants, according to Strehler, is to “coucher avec n’importe qui.” The words do not say this, of course, but the music does. Moreover, the sex appeal in the music is far more potent than words could ever be—to say nothing of such exhibitions as the orgies in Moses and Aaron.

M. Liebermann’s achievement in mounting two productions of such high quality at the Opera must be measured against a background of artistic paralysis and a foreground of artistically pernicious chauvinism—M. Liebermann has been abused for “internationalizing” the nation’s first theater, though it is doubtful that the Schoenberg opera could have been presented otherwise. As it was, Paris was treated to probably the finest musical performance (Solti) that this most difficult (whatever else) of twentieth-century operas has ever had.

This revives the question of when Schoenberg’s masterpiece might be expected to reach the stage in New York. Neither of the local companies has announced it for the composer’s centenary. Yet by any criteria it deserves precedence over the Delius and Britten, Henze and Ginastera operas that have been included in the recent repertories. This is not because of the centenary, of course, or even for the reason that Schoenberg’s opera, though composed such a long way back, is still such a long way ahead. The mandate for it is its superiority, Moses and Aaron being one of the handful of twentieth-century operas with contemporary musical and dramatic power.


Moses and Chopin January 24, 1974

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