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At last, the promised land?

On Saturday, February 20, most of the usual weekly listeners to the Texaco-sponsored broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera cannot have been pleased by the sounds emanating from their radios. For the first time, Arnold Schoenberg's opera Moses und Aron was broadcast to an audience noted for their decades of loyal and fervent support of operas like La Traviata or La Boheme. True, a surprising number of seats at the Met had been sold for a prior performance on February Ii and the ovations on that occasion had been hearty and vociferous, but one can wager that many listening to the Saturday matinee broadcast quickly voted with their fingers and moved to another location on the dial.

Sixty-seven years after its composition, Moses und Aron is still a barrage of sound, a sonic avalanche. The spelling of both names in the title is unusual. As the annotator Michael Steinberg has pointed out, "Moses" is "Mose" in German, "Aaron" is "Aaron" as in English. The two a's in Aaron's name have been shortened to one a, while an additional s, borrowed from the English spelling of "Moses," has been added, making both spellings foreign to the German reader, unsettling and perhaps alien to those used to Martin Luther's version. In any case, the resulting twelve letters match, at least numerically, the twelve-tone row that governs the permutations of the whole opera. The fact that Schoenberg was born on September 13, 1874 and was fervently triskaidekaphobic must have produced a sense of foreboding from childhood on. As a composer, he was always seen (and above all by himself) as the heroic outsider. Many thought of him as a pariah and musical defiler of the three B's of German musical tradition, while others, admittedly a minority of music lovers, considered him a musical Moses, a giver of laws. It is difficult to evoke the fury and derision occasioned by his music in the early Vienna days, though the treatment accorded to his mentor and friend Gustav Mahler must have steeled him for the worst. For instance, at the first performance of Schoenberg's magnificent String Quartet No. 2, the review of the work was printed in the "Crime" section of the New Vienna Daily of December 22, 1908, the critic suggesting that the music sounded like "a convocation of cats."

Schoenberg himself never heard any part of Moses und Aron performed. Promises were made but never kept. The first performances were in Switzerland in 1957, six years after he died. The instrumental, choral and vocal demands are even now at the very limit of contemporary technical execution; only major opera houses can possibly do it justice. Sir Georg Solti, a master technician who delighted in the complexity of "new" music, noted, "I remember so vividly the fears and anxiety I had when I first studied the score of Moses und Aron in 1965. I found it unbelievably complicated, and thought I would never manage to learn it. But since then I have performed the work over twenty times." The difficulties that accompany the initial hearing and perception of the work derive not only from Schoenberg's by now well-known pantonal musical vocabulary, but also in the wild melange of forces needed to realize the grand vision that the opera contains. Moses und Aron requires a large and highly energized orchestra, a choir that has mastered both traditional singing parts and sprechstimme, a kind of musical declamation. There are highly demanding parts for both Moses, who is listed as a "speaker" in the score, and Aron, abel canto tenor. Other supporting singers of considerable technical agility are needed, along with a corps de ballet essential to realize the sonic and visual showpiece of the second act, the orgy/dance around the Golden Calf.

There is also the matter of Schoenberg's own libretto, drawn freely from well-known passages in the Books of Exodus and Numbers, but with notable alterations and reformulations of the biblical story. Unlike so many librettos, it is not a "weak sister" in the relation between words and music, where the words are there just enough for the characters to launch into song. As Auden put it, "libretto ... offers as many opportunities as possible for the characters to be swept off their feet by placing them in situations which are too tragic or fantastic for `words'" This is an ongoing balancing act, first announced by that eighteenth century saying "prima la musica poi le parole"--though some composers preferred the reversal of these same terms.

In Schoenberg's case, both words and music are at once inextricably bound to and wildly divergent from each other. This is the quandary which is the axis of the libretto: the irreconciliability between idea and representation of that same idea, between archetype and its expression, between the "one, infinite, omnipresent one, unperceived and inconceivable God" and his verbal and pictorial earthly representation. Schoenberg has done something rare for an opera composer; he has fashioned a libretto of both religious and philosophical resonance, an opera for a thinking audience, and he makes it work on stage by means of a clever dramaturgy and carefully thought-out staging. He had to manhandle the Bible a bit. For instance, the substance of the first act is the miracles: Moses's staff turned into a snake, Moses's hand becoming leprous and being cured, the waters of the Jordan turned to blood. In the Bible, these are miracles wrought by God. In the libretto, it is the showman Aron who does the job.

But at the most elemental level of Schoenberg's intent, before any echoes or ramifications of the literary libretto are teased out, the basic quandary demands that Moses should not and must not sing under any circumstances (except for an inexplicable nine bars in Act I). He is closer to immeasurable silence than to idle words or song. He must express himself gruffly in sprechstimme, telling all of the mission given him by God. He does not yet know he will fail. But, Aron, his "mouth" and worldly agent, should and must sing with all the florid bel canto roulades he can muster. He sings almost tonal arias. His is the power of word and song over the masses. As a betrayer of the extraordinary to the commonplace, he is just the man for a rally or a grand convocation. He is, alas, a leader (ein Fuhrer), a Jim Jones of another time. The opera was finished on March 10, 1932. In Germany, yet another kind of Fuhrer was soon to become chancellor.

Biblical preoccupations were not at the forefront of Schoenberg's formative years. He was born into an emancipated Jewish family in Vienna: his mother came from a Prague cantorial family while his father was a simple shoemaker from Slovakia. Schoenberg was something of a radical free-thinker and an enthusiast of the excoriations of Karl Kraus, the apocalyptic journalist who had already described the Vienna of his time as the "experiment station for the end of the world." Schoenberg was "never anti-religious but never really unreligious either," and in 1912, he noted in a letter that "I have been wanting to write an oratorio on the following subject: modern man ... despite having been an atheist, still having in him some residue of ancient belief (in the form of superstition) wrestles with God and finally succeeds in finding God and becoming religious. Learning to pray!" The increasing anti-Semitism in both Austria and Germany, the attacks against him as a "Jewish" composer, all culminated in his "re-entry into the community of Israel" in Paris on July 24, 1933, with Marc Chagall as the only witness.

In a notable letter to Alban Berg, Schoenberg affirmed, "Everything I have written has a certain inner likeness to myself." Indeed, after the composition of Moses und Aron (1930-1932) and the beginning of his permanent exile in the United States, Schoenberg almost single-handedly tried to organize the salvation of European Jewry by means of a "Jewish Unity Party" which would negotiate with the German government for the orderly exile of emigres to a homeland still to be found. Schoenberg said he would "sacrifice [his] art to the Jewish cause." In this fantastic propoganda campaign which he himself would lead, he needed to "lease an airplane permitting me to complete as quickly as possible the travels which it would enable me to undertake, a mobile home, a special broadcasting staff, disc recordings of my important speeches, sound films." He would speak with Roosevelt. He hoped for the enrollment of four million Jews contributing one mark a month for the cause. This political program, called "A Four-Point Program for Jewry," was drafted in the first months of his exile in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1933 and given final form in California in 1938. It came to naught. By the time of the Kristallnacht of November 1938, Schoenberg/Moses, "realizing the utter futility of his political effort, turned increasing inward."

Schoenberg's depiction of Moses might also be thought of as a self-portrait of himself as the reviled musical revolutionary. He sensed his mission as the bringer of a salvational musical system that would lead harmonic usage out of the dead end of tonality vitiated by excessive chromaticism. Schoenberg's twelve-tone expansion of musical language was one that was taken up by his "disciples" Anton Webern and Alban Berg, with varying degrees of rigor, at times with a language veering toward tonality (Berg), in other instances an even greater musical economy and manipulation of silence (Webern). Ironically, this expanded language was later employed by the more popular Igor Stravinsky, but only after the master himself had died. It is not impossible that the shadow of Stravinsky among other targets lurks behind the facile changeling that is Schoenberg's Aron. Schoenberg was not wont to forgive backsliders.

Ever suspicious of executants of his work who might have wayward or idiosyncratic ideas about the staging of this opera, Schoenberg filled the orchestral score with the most specific stage instructions imaginable, with the idea that "I wanted to leave as little as possible to those new despots of the theatrical art, the producers, and even to envisage the choreography as far as I'm able to." He does this, above all, in the orgy scene around the Golden Calf, but even Cecil B. DeMille would have blanched at the specifics: "During Aron's last speech processions of laden camels, asses, horses, porters and wagons enter the stage from different directions, bringing offering as of gold, grain, skins of wine and oil ... the animals are decorated and wreathed ... butchers with large knives enter and with wild leaps dance around the animals." There is more. Four naked virgins, that is, "naked to the extent that the rules and necessities of the stage allow and require" are sacrificed--'the priests thrust the knives into their hearts. The blood is caught in receptacles. The priests pour it forth on the altar." Mr. Graham Vick, in charge of this Metropolitan Opera staging, gave us a Golden Calf scene that is an appropriately orgiastic crowd pleaser, sans animals and droppings, but with some blood. Faithful also to the "despotism" decried by Schoenberg, Mr. Vick and his set and costume designer Paul Brown gave us a band of well over one-hundred oppressed choristers/Israelites dressed as Hasidim apparently out for a toot at a Brooklyn deli or venting their rage at City Hall. The orgiasts themselves had a Brechtian cast, cavorting in mangy furs out of Goodwill, flashbulbs popping, plastic surgeons doing their thing, all very glitzy. Pity the muscle-bound men of the Met chorus, who had to prance about bare-chested for the Dance of the Butchers, smearing themselves with offal and dreck, heartily bellowing all the time. These are the producer's importations, and why not, I suppose; anything goes these days. Haven't we seen Wotan singing in a tuxedo?

What is of final import is the visually impressive ochre sets of the blasted wastes, and, of course, the transmittal of both word and music under the leadership of the demonically possessed James Levine. Philip Langridge's oily Aron was already well known through his 1985 recording with Sir Georg Solti; equally impressive and stentorian was the Moses of John Tomlinson who poured forth his sprechstimme with force and eloquence; with fulsome beard, he made Charlton Heston look mighty puny.

Alexander Coleman is professor emeritus of Portuguese and Spanish Studies at New York University.
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Author:Coleman, Alexander
Publication:New Criterion
Date:May 1, 1999
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