Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron
Arnold Schoenberg and his family were forced to leave Mattsee, an Austrian lake-area where they had a vacation residence, when it became restricted to bona fide Aryans only, in the summer of 1921. This experience was one of the earliest representations of the anomalous position of the German Jew that Schoenberg had to deal with on a personal level. Having received political freedom in the middle of the Nineteenth century, the German Jew found himself in "a society which, all official safeguards to the contrary notwithstanding, rejected him out of hand in ways seemingly devoid of all logic, let alone compassion, and hence quite beyond his control."1 In the same year that Schoenberg was forced from Mattsee, the Jewish novelist Jakob Wassermann expressed the unique dilemma that his fellow Jews faced: "German Jew; understand these two words with full emphasis...With his twin loves and his struggle on two fronts he has been pushed to the very abyss of despair."2 With their new freedom, the Jews of Austria and Germany wanted to become full members of a culture that they loved but that had always excluded them. It seemed at first that such assimilation would be successful; fin-de-siècle Vienna was permeated with Jewish artists, journalists and musicians. This is the Vienna that Wassermann encountered when he moved to Vienna from a small German town shortly before the turn of the century. Upon seeing it, though:
he asked himself what was likely to happen once the ageing [sic.] Emperor Franz Joseph was no longer there to protect the rapidly extending Jewish community from increasingly well organized extremists who, in mapping out their political future, banked heavily on the traditional anti-Semitism of the urban petty bourgeoisie no less than of a rural population easily seduced by local demagogues."3
Schoenberg, who saw his music as continuing the tradition of anti-Semites such as Wagner, had to come face to face with a society where all they say is: "He is a Jew."4
Not even conversion to Christianity could supply a solution for the Jews of Central Europe, as the case of Maxamilian Harden proved. In 1922, Harden, baptized and a conservative journalist, was severely beaten by political thugs for whom the issue was race, not religion.5 About such a world, Wasserman finally remarked: "What can the Jews do? This question is difficult to answer. This topic in its inexhaustibility mocks every effort."6 Moses und Aron was just such an effort; whether Schoenberg’s answer too is mocked by the question is an issue to be taken up later on, for now let us attempt to understand Schoenberg’s work more closely.
Schoenberg converted to Lutheranism7 as a young man in 1898. By 1923, after reflecting on his experience at Mattsee and on his society in general, he realized his unavoidable Jewishness. On 20 April of that year he wrote to his old friend Wassily Kandinsky, whom Schoenberg had heard is not free of anti-Semitic tendencies:8
For I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me during this year, and I shall not ever forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed not perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but I am a Jew.9
This realization paved the way for Schoenberg’s public return to Judaism in 1933, and for much of his future output, both musical and literary.
Possibly Schoenberg’s finest work, and certainly one that he held close to his heart, is his unfinished opera, Moses und Aron. More than his play Der biblische Weg, Moses und Aron represents Schoenberg’s finest attempt at meshing his philosophical ideas with his artistry. It is a work that can be approached on many different levels: as an example of his twelve-tone system, as a work of biblical commentary, or as an attempt to work out the problems facing the Jew in the modern world. These latter two approaches will be developed in the course of this essay.
I. The Biblical Story and the Libretto as Commentary
Schoenberg’s main source for the libretto of Moses und Aron, which he wrote himself, was, of course, the bible. Originally, the text was filled with direct quotes from Luther’s bible, a copy of which Schoenberg always had at his bedside. These, however, were later deleted; he explains this decision in a letter he wrote to Alban Berg on 5 August, 1930: "I am now, among other revisions, removing these Biblical echoes...because I am of the opinion that the language of the Bible is mediaeval German."10 Schoenberg wanted the libretto to reflect his own voice, and his own approach to the original biblical text. In a letter to Walter Eidlitz, 15 March 1933, Schoenberg summarized this approach: "The elements...that I myself have placed in the foreground are: the idea of the inconceivable God, of the Chosen People, and of the leader of the people." And he continues: "My Moses...resembles...Michelangelo’s. He is not human at all."11 It is from his characterization of Moses, the leader, that we get the title of the work. Schoenberg achieves this characterization by establishing Aaron as a foil to Moses. By showing us the faults in Aaron, Schoenberg highlights the greatness, and the inhumanity, of Moses.
Broadly outlined, the opera can be summarized as follows. Act I, Scene 1, opens with Moses standing before the Burning Bush, where God explains to him his mission: to reveal to the Children of Israel the "one, infinite, omnipresent, unperceived and inconceivable God," who will take them out of Egypt. God tells Moses that his brother, Aaron, will serve as his tongue, for Moses, though he knows the idea, has not been granted the gift of eloquence to convey it. Scene 2 shows the meeting of the two brothers in the wilderness, and Scene 3, their arrival among the people. Scene 4, which makes up half the Act, shows the great difficulty the people have in accepting an invisible and nonmaterial God. Since they are unconvinced by Moses’s abstract words, Aaron gives the people tangible proof in the form of miracles. The Act closes with the Children of Israel marching triumphantly to freedom.
Act II takes place in the wilderness. For forty days, Moses has been on the mountain where God is revealing to him the law. The people are growing restless and mutinous, and the Elders beg Aaron for his help (Scene 1). A raging crowd surrounds the Elders and Aaron, demanding the return of their old gods. Pressed by the Elders, Aaron yields and sets up the Golden Calf (Scene 2). Scene 3, the most spectacular in the opera, shows the orgy around the Golden Calf. In Scene 4, Moses descends from the mountain bearing the Tablets of the Law. The Golden Calf vanishes at his cry of furious scorn; intimidated, the people creep away, lamenting their idol. Left alone with Aaron (Scene 5), Moses gives rein to his terrible anger. Aaron, however, using a subtle and plausible argument, justifies his actions to his brother. He affirms his love for the people and for the divine idea, which he feels, however, cannot be made comprehensible without some form of interpretation which will necessarily limit it. Moses remains adamant about the superiority of abstract thought, to which Aaron quickly replies that the Tablets that Moses holds are themselves images. In a fit of despair, Moses shatters the Tablets of the Law and utters a final "O word, thou word, that I lack!"
Act III, for which Schoenberg wrote the text but never completed the music, is comprised of one scene. Aaron is brought to Moses in chains, and Moses accuses him of enslaving the people in the worship of images and material symbols of the existence of God. Moses then orders the soldiers who have asked, "Should we kill him?" to set Aaron free. As soon as he is released, Aaron falls dead, for he is chained to material things that are mortal, unlike the idea that guides Moses.
Unlike the text of Exodus 3, which begins with God calling out to Moses, Schoenberg’s text begins with Moses calling out to God. "Only one, infinite one, omnipresent one, unperceived and inconceivable God!"12 These words which begin the opera will remain central to the entire work, as will this original characterization of Moses as the one man who holds this belief entirely. Schoenberg’s Moses is unlike the biblical Moses in that he knows entirely where he stands. The biblical Moses, born a Jew, raised an Egyptian, and having lived his adult life as a Midyanite, cannot attest to such surety of place. Five lines before the scene of the Burning Bush in Exodus, Moses says about himself, "I have been a stranger in a strange land."13 For this reason, we find in Exodus God having to introduce himself to Moses: "I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob."14 Not so in Schoenberg’s adaptation. In order to portray Moses as steadfast in his knowledge of the true God, Schoenberg has Moses open the opera with an acknowledgment of God. Schoenberg’s text continues to emphasize Moses’s connection with God: "Joined with the only God, with you united, from Pharaoh separated!" The closest equivalent to this in the original text is God’s guaranteeing Moses that He will help him in his task in Egypt. "I will be with thee,"15 is the practical assurance that Schoenberg transforms into a spiritual doctrine of unity with God.
It is at the end of this scene that we first encounter the relationship between Moses and Aaron. In order to distinguish Moses’ role from that of Aaron, not only does Schoenberg’s Moses tell God that he is not eloquent, as his counterpart in Exodus does, but mentions as well that "thought is easy." This addition breaks with the traditional Jewish characterization of Moses as the most modest of men. Instead, in Schoenberg’s reworking, Moses knows his strengths and is not too modest to mention them. He is the one who thinks; he needs Aaron as the one who speaks.16
Schoenberg ends this scene with a monologue for God which does not appear in the original. Where the original sends Moses off to meet Aaron directly after God’s revealing Aaron as the one who will be Moses’s mouth, Schoenberg has God speak on the chosenness of the Jewish people and their special role in the world:
This people is chosen,
before all peoples,
To be the people of the only God,
So that they know him
and dedicate themselves to him alone.
Also they will undergo all trials
that have in millennia
ever come to be conceived.
And this I promise you:
I shall conduct you forward
to where you will be with the infinite one
and to all the peoples you will be a model.
Schoenberg includes these ideas here because he wants us to keep them in mind as we watch the remainder of the opera. These are some of the key ideas in Judaism, ones that have influenced biblical commentary throughout the ages. By mentioning them here, Schoenberg establishes a link between his work and the traditions of biblical commentary and Jewish philosophy.
The text of Scene 2 is entirely a product of Schoenberg’s imagination and his understanding of the characters of Moses and Aaron. The meeting of the brothers takes up only two sentences of the original text, none of which is dialogue: "And the Lord said to Aaron, ‘Go to the wilderness to meet Moses.’ And he went, and met him in the mount of God, and kissed him. And Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord who had commanded him."17 From these two lines Schoenberg creates a conversation between the brothers that lasts seven and a half minutes.18 No traditional Jewish biblical commentators hint at any similar exchange between the brothers, nor are there any stories in the Midrash that I am aware of that tell of such a conversation.19 Instead it seems that this conversation is entirely a product of Schoenberg’s own understanding of the text, and is inserted in order to build on the relationship between Moses and Aaron. Understanding the relationship between the brothers in the way he does, however, is not entirely original. Throughout Jewish thought, Moses is associated with the Law or the idea, while Aaron is associated with peace and compromise. This is most clearly represented in two commonly known Jewish maxims: "Moses is Truth, and his Law is Truth,"20 and "Aaron loves peace and pursues peace."21 Schoenberg’s characterization of the principles is not new; what is unprecedented is the emphasis that his work places on the relationship between the two.
The third scene of Act I is entitled "Moses and Aaron Bring God’s Message to the People." This title would seem to apply to the fourth scene as well, since the third is a preparation for the fourth and is musically continuous with it. Like the previous scene, the third is a creation of Schoenberg’s with no similar scene in the text of Exodus. Its importance is mainly dramatic, portraying the anticipation of the people for the arrival of the brothers and the new god. In ways its function is similar to the opening scene of Verdi’s Otello. More important to the plot than the suspense it creates, though, is how the act supplies us with a characterization of the fourth protagonist of the opera: the people.
Since the opening of Scene 2 when Moses met Aaron in the wilderness, what has taken place on stage has not had a parallel in the text of Exodus. Schoenberg returns to the original text for Scene 4, which takes place in Exodus in the sentences directly following the reunion of the brothers. Exodus 4:29-30 states: "And Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the Children of Israel. And Aaron spoke all the words which the Lord had spoken to Moses, and did the signs in the sight of the people." This is roughly what takes place in Schoenberg’s version, yet he uses the opportunity to build further the conflict between the brothers. Moses is first to present the new god, and does so with the line: "The only one, infinite one, all-powerful one, omnipresent one, invisible one, inconceivable one..." But this idea is not something the people are able to comprehend, as was expected by Moses in the first scene. To Moses, the people reply with: "Worship? Whom? Where is he? I see him not! Where is he?" Since Moses is unsuccessful, Aaron steps in to speak to the people and show them signs, as is stated in Exodus. Schoenberg has the scene staged in such a way, though, that as Aaron fulfills his role, Moses recedes into the background, finally calling out to God: "Almighty one, now my strength is exhausted, and my thought becomes powerless in Aaron’s word!" The closest to such a cry that can be found in Exodus is where Moses, after hearing of the increased labor Pharaoh has put on the Israelites, calls out to God: "Lord, why hast thou dealt ill with this people?"22 This is important, because the Moses who said this is not Schoenberg’s Moses. The Moses of Exodus loves the people and calls out to God in their favor. On the other hand, as David Lewin writes, Schoenberg’s Moses "knows and loves God; he does not love the people..."23 Seen in this way, the cry of Schoenberg’s Moses who is estranged from the people is diametrically opposed to the cry of his counterpart in the original text. The scene ends with Aaron convincing the people with miracles, as is the case in Exodus, where it is stated that "the people believed."24 The people then sing a triumphal march reminiscent of the Song of Victory that appears in Exodus 15, but differing in emphasis. Schoenberg’s lyrics stress the chosenness: "We are his chosen people before all peoples." Since the plagues and the dealings with Pharaoh are not important for the relationships with which he is concerned, Schoenberg leaves these items out of the libretto, expecting us to know the biblical story and fill them in ourselves.
The second act takes place at the foot of Mount Sinai, and is based roughly on Chapter 32 of Exodus. The first three scenes of this act are derived from the first six lines of this chapter. Schoenberg takes these six lines and develops them into an intricate interchange between Aaron, the people, and, though they don’t appear in Exodus, the Seventy Elders. Scene 1 works in much the same way as Act I, Scene 3 did. Schoenberg builds tension in the first scene by having the anarchy of the people described first by the Elders before the people enter in Scene 2, where it is seen on stage. This is the main purpose of Scene 1, since no interchange between Aaron and the Elders appears in the original text.
Unlike the biblical text which has the people questioning the existence of Moses only, Schoenberg’s text at the start of Scene 2 has the people ask not only "Where is Moses?" but "Where is the great omnipresent one?" as well. Exodus has the people saying to Aaron: "[M]ake us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this man Moses, who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has become of him."25 The text seems to be saying that the people wanted another leader, another Moses, and not another god. This is made clear by Nachmanides, where he writes:
[The people] wanted another Moses, saying: "Moses, the man who showed us the way from Egypt until now, being in charge of the journeyings at the commandment of the Eternal by the hand of Moses, he is now lost to us; let us make ourselves another Moses who will show us the way at the commandment of the Eternal by his hand." This is the reason for their mentioning, "Moses, the man that brought us up," rather than saying "the God who brought them up," for they needed a man of God.26
Instead of following this more literal interpretation, Schoenberg chooses to view the statement of the people in Exodus as a rejection of God, and a request for gods to replace Him. Schoenberg’s belief that the people wanted to return to polytheism is supported by Rashi, who writes: "The people asked for a god ‘who shall go before us.’ The Hebrew yelkhu ("go") is in the plural, indicating that the people desired several gods."27
By not taking the more literal understanding, Schoenberg increases the tension between a people who don’t want to follow an unseen God, Moses who can only see value in the uncorrupted idea, and Aaron who is willing to dilute the idea in order to get the people to make the jump from polytheism to monotheism.
Aaron is finally swayed by a combination of the Elders’ pressure ("Aaron, help us...They’ll murder us!"), his own insecurity about the new god ("He is a severe God; maybe he has killed [Moses]!") and the people’s conclusion that "[t]he gods have killed [Moses]!" He relents:
People of Israel,
I return your gods to you,
and also give you to them,
just as you have demanded....
You shall provide the stuff;
I shall give it such form:
ordinary, visible, easy to understand
in gold forever.
Bring out your gold!
Yield it! Call him forth!
You then shall be happy!
This speech Schoenberg derives from one line in Exodus: "And Aaron said to them, ‘Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them to me.’"28 The emphasis that Schoenberg’s Aaron places on the image, "ordinary and visible," is clearly an addition that Schoenberg has made. Aaron does not only pursue peace; he is willing to corrupt the word and give form to an image in order to obtain it.
It is important to notice the lack of sympathy Schoenberg holds for Aaron. Where the majority of traditional biblical commentators have spent their space on these few lines in Exodus attempting to defend Aaron’s actions, Schoenberg makes no such attempts. Commentating on Exodus 32:2, Rashi writes: "Aaron said to himself: ‘The womenfolk and the children prize their jewelry dearly. So the whole matter may be delayed on account of my demand. Meanwhile, Moses might return.’"29 Schoenberg, on the other hand, does not allow for such an explanation, since his Aaron asks for the people’s gold, and not that of their wives and their children. Likewise, though Verse 5 has Aaron proclaim, "Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord," any similar proclamation is conspicuously missing from Schoenberg’s text. Nachmanides comments on this verse, saying: "It is for this reason that Aaron said, Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Eternal, meaning that the services and the sacrifices would be to the Proper Name of God in order to obtain His favor upon the power [symbolized by] this image..."30 Schoenberg, on the other hand, does not portray Aaron as seeing the Calf as a symbol of the True God. Instead, Schoenberg’s Aaron proclaims: "This gold image attests that in all things that are, a god lives." This claim is fundamentally opposed to the foundation of Judaism, a religion whose birth can be seen in the allegorical story of the child Abraham smashing the idols of his father.
A third defense of Aaron that Schoenberg makes impossible, since he has not included Aaron’s proclamation regarding the festivities beginning in the morning, is that he attempts to delay until tomorrow. This defense can also be found in the writings of Nachmanides on Verse 5. He writes: "It is possible that Aaron said, Tomorrow [shall be a feast], in order to delay them, thinking that perhaps Moses would come in the meantime and they would abandon the calf."31 That Schoenberg goes so far as to not include the principal line for Aaron’s defense shows the utter lack of sympathy Schoenberg holds for Aaron, a man willing to corrupt the idea.
About Act II, Scene 3, entitled "The Golden Calf and the Altar," Schoenberg writes: "In the treatment of this scene...I went pretty much to the limit, and this too is probably where my piece is most operatic; as indeed it must be."32 In this scene, the grandest of the opera, Schoenberg chooses to show explicitly what the text in Exodus merely suggests. Exodus tells us that "the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to disport themselves."33 God is also quoted as saying to Moses that the people "have turned aside quickly out of the way which [God] commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed to it."34 A further hint into what was taking place comes from God’s command to Moses: "Let me alone, that my wrath may burn against them, and that I may consume them."35 The text does not supply us with details to what the people were doing; all we know is that their actions were bad enough to cause God to desire to destroy them, after having saved them from slavery and giving them the Law. Schoenberg calls up his artistry in order to supply us with an image of what took place around the Golden Calf, a pagan orgy for the stage whose grandiosity is such that this scene becomes the most "operatic" of the entire opera.
Scene 4 has Moses descend with the Tablets of the Law. When he sees the calf he exclaims: "Begone, you image of powerlessness, you enclose the boundless in an image!" At this, the Golden Calf vanishes; the people lament its loss as they exit the stage: "The golden rays are extinguished; our god is again invisible. Every joy, every pleasure, every prospect is gone! All is again gloom and darkness!" There is a striking difference between how Schoenberg represents how the people deal with the destruction of the calf and how Nachmanides interprets the text. Nachmanides writes: "As soon as the people saw Moses, they immediately left the calf and rejected it, and they allowed him to burn it and scatter its powder upon the water, and no one quarreled with him at all."36 Schoenberg does not show as much faith in the Children of Israel; in his interpretation there is only one person who does the correct thing: Moses.
Scene 5 is the final scene for which Schoenberg completed the music. Like Act I, Scene 2, this scene is a dialogue between the brothers, but unlike its predecessor in Act I, a source for this conversation can be found in the original text. However, unlike its counterpart in Exodus, which is practical, the conversation that takes place in the opera has philosophical dimensions. In Exodus we find Aaron defending his actions in a pragmatic way; "Thou knowest the people, that they are bent on mischief,"37 Aaron replies to Moses’s charge. In contrast, Schoenberg’s Aaron, in reply to Moses’s question, "O what have you done?" answers:
just my task as it ever has been:
When your idea gave forth
no word, my word gave forth
no image for them, I worked marvels
for eyes and ears to witness.
Aaron sees his behavior as nothing more than continuing his role of bringing the people closer to God by supplying them with wonders for their senses. Instead of placing blame on the mischievous nature of the people as the biblical Aaron does, Schoenberg’s Aaron takes this opportunity to confront Moses about his conception of God. "And yet was the marvel an image, not more, when your word destroyed my image." Aaron accuses Moses of partaking in imagery himself, calling the destruction of the calf and the Tablets of the Law images similar to those used by Aaron. At this Moses smashes the Tablets, not wanting anything to do with imagery. Although Schoenberg has altered the placement of the smashing of the Tablets (in Exodus it occurs in front of the people, before Moses is left alone with Aaron,) his interpretation that Moses smashes the Tablets not out of anger but to prove a point is not unprecedented. In the original text, the smashing of the Tablets is followed in the next verse with the destruction of the Golden Calf. Many commentators agree that Moses is making a point; neither the calf nor the Tablets have any value in themselves; only the idea contains value. In Schoenberg’s rendition, however, Aaron takes Moses’ point and turns it on itself. By showing that even Moses’ breaking of the Tablets is an image, Aaron leads Moses to utter despair. Aaron claims his victory, a victory not present in Exodus, by restating his purpose:
Image of your idea;
they are one, as all is that emerges from it.
I simply yield before necessity;
for it is certain this folk will be sustained
to give proof of the eternal idea.
This is my mission: to speak it more simply
than I understand it.
Yet, the knowing ones surely will
ever again discover it!
Aaron’s philosophy is to treat things practically, for this is the only way a people can be led. At this point Schoenberg has the people pass in the distance led by the cloud of fire;38 with this image to assure them, they can now state:
For he has chosen us before all peoples,
to be the people of the only God;
to serve him alone,
no one else’s servant!
This does not occur in the original text, but is used here to emphasize the victory of Aaron and his approach to leading the people. In contrast, Moses is left at the end of the act in despair, calling out: "O word, you word, that I lack."
Act III, for which Schoenberg made only some rough musical sketches, represents Moses’s final triumph over Aaron. The scene is the death of Aaron, which takes place in the Bible in Numbers 20:22-29. However, Schoenberg’s account is entirely different from the biblical one. While the Bible states that Aaron was to die in the wilderness as a result of his rebellion, with Moses, against the word of God at the water of Meriva, the sin of Schoenberg’s Aaron is something completely different. "Aaron, now this must cease," Moses orders Aaron, who is in chains, at the opening of the act. But Aaron doesn’t understand what he has done wrong. He says: "I was to speak in images while you spoke in ideas; to the heart, while you spoke to the mind." This defense, however, does not convince Moses, who replies:
You, from whom both word and image flee,
you yourself remain, you yourself live
in the images that you have provided
for the people to witness.
Having been alienated from the source, from the idea,
then neither word nor image satisfied you...
The sin Moses accuses Aaron of here is clearly different from the one supplied by the bible. Furthermore, unlike the biblical passage that has God accusing Aaron, in Schoenberg’s opera it is Moses who does the accusing: "You...expose them to strange gods, to the calf and to the pillars of fire and cloud; for you do as the people do, because you feel and think as they do." In Schoenberg’s interpretation, this is why Aaron is bound to fail; it follows that when Aaron is set free, he falls down dead. Moses is left victorious to proclaim the ultimate goal: "Unity with God."
II. Moses und Aron: Opera for its Time
Clearly Schoenberg does more in this opera than merely retell a well known biblical story. His account, though often sticking to the text, or at least to accepted interpretations, also often diverges in order to make particular points. Schoenberg’s main point lies in the relationship between Moses and Aaron, and the question of which one of these two is better suited to leading the Jewish people to their ultimate goal. Schoenberg is willing to distort the text, and even fabricate, as we have seen, in order to bring this point across. He has more on his mind than just figuring out what took place in the wilderness four-thousand years earlier; he wants to see how the text applies to his own time. Schoenberg has chosen this biblical story to operate as a vehicle for his exploration of the role and the future of the Jewish people in the modern world.
As I mentioned above, Schoenberg returned publicly to Judaism in 1933, almost directly after completing the text of Moses und Aron. This public ceremony, however, was only the final step in his return, which we have seen as having begun with the incident at Mattsee and his correspondence with Kandinsky.39 That Schoenberg had decided to occupy himself with the Jewish Question before even returning to the faith publicly himself is evident in his play Der biblische Weg,40 which he wrote in the summer of 1926, and, of course, in the libretto to Moses und Aron, which he completed in 1932. After formulating his own position in these two works, and returning publicly to Judaism, Schoenberg took up the cause of the Jews with ever more intensity. As of 1933 he had established close contact with Zionist circles and became passionate about the creation of a Jewish state. He determined to fight for the Zionist cause, and did not see himself above using propaganda. "Propaganda for a good cause, he believed, was nothing to be ashamed of..."41 Ringer writes that "Der biblische Weg was conceived from the outset as a piece of propaganda, and its author insisted that it be regarded as such."42 Not to discredit it as a work of art, several aspects of Moses und Aron can be seen in a similar way, something Schoenberg most probably intended.
One major aspect of Schoenberg’s Zionist philosophy that appears in Moses und Aron is his belief in the chosenness of Israel. This idea can be most plainly seen in the opera in the Victory Song at the end of Act I, and is then reemphasized by Moses in the last Act, where he says: "To serve, to serve the divine idea, is the freedom for which this folk has been chosen." This idea of chosenness plays a central role in Schoenberg’s conception of a unified Jewish people. In pursuit of this latter goal, Jewish unity, Schoenberg circulated a letter dated Paris, Summer 1933. This letter, addressed to Ernst Toch, Joachim Stutchevsky, and other Jewish musicians is an appeal for worldwide Jewish solidarity, and echoes what Schoenberg has already stated in the libretto to his opera. He writes in the letter: "I want to create a movement to make a people of the Jews once more and to unite them in a State...Taking full account...of the duties imposed on the Jewish people by virtue of its special status as God’s Chosen People, a people destined to preserve a thought, the thought of the One, Inconceivable God."43 Clearly, Moses’s statement in Act III was written with a similar purpose to the one in this public call for a Jewish state.
Not only does Schoenberg emphasize that the Jews are the Chosen People, but also stresses for what they are chosen. This is the key to his Zionist theory, which maintained that the only way is the Biblical Way. Schoenberg stresses the connection of the Jewish people to the idea and the Law, not limited by anything material. This is a blatant attack on the secular Zionists of his time, who argued that the Jews must have their own state to behave as all other nations do. In contrast to the religious Zionists who argued that the Jewish people are a people unavoidably linked to the Law, the secularists believed that the modern Jew could throw off the shackles of the Law and still be a unified people. Schoenberg sees this conception as flawed because of his idea of the special purpose of the Jew; to get rid of that special purpose is to destroy the Jewish people. The Jewish people’s strength comes from the idea; to maximize that strength the Jews must return in earnest to the path of the Law (at a time when assimilation in Europe was possibly at the highest it had ever been in Jewish history.) The secularists are like Aaron, who holds as primary, "their freedom—so that they would become a nation." But Moses realizes that no free nation can come out of this people if they deny the purpose of their nationhood. If Aaron’s way is to be followed:
Images [would] lead and rule this folk
that you have freed,
and strange wishes [will be] their gods,
leading them back to the slavery
of godlessness and earthly pleasures.
You have betrayed God to the gods,
the idea to images,
this chosen folk to others,
the extraordinary to the commonplace...
Through these words Schoenberg attacks his opponents, the secular Zionists, by predicting their failure. Left alone to do as they wish, Schoenberg predicts, they will fall down dead as Aaron does, because their way does not allow for life.
Moses und Aron is clearly a complex work. Some may argue that it suffers artistically by being too cerebral. This may be so, but, as I hope has been shown, the intellectual quality of the work is of utmost importance in itself. In this opera Schoenberg manages to combine biblical commentary with timely political propaganda. His rendition of the biblical story, though at times distorted, is not a preposterous one, and is in no way blasphemous. He remains in clear connection to traditional biblical commentators, and sees the characterizations that he is making as additions to biblical interpretation. However, he is at the same time producing a work of propaganda, and is for that reason willing to take more liberties with the text than his counterparts in traditional commentary do. The result, therefore, is an opera in which the characterization of Moses and Aaron, and their conflicting methods of leadership, follows tradition but is emphasized by additions to and manipulations of the original biblical text. The work then, artistic achievement aside, can be seen simultaneously as a brilliant insight into a complex biblical story and as a manifesto for how the Jewish people must live—strikingly similar to the book from which it originates.
1 Alexander L. Ringer, Arnold Schoenberg: The Composer as Jew (Oxford, 1990), p. 3.
2 Jakob Wassermann, "Mein Weg als Deutscher und Jude", Deutscher und Jude: Reden und Schriften 1904-1933, (Heidelberg, 1984), p. 125.
3 Ringer, pp. 3-4.
4 Wassermann, p. 128.
5 Ringer, pp. 2-3.
6 Wassermann, p. 130.
7 An interesting choice. Had the conversion been for simply social reasons, the natural choice in Vienna would have been Catholicism. Whether the conception of God and man’s relation to him that Schoenberg develops in the opera is influenced by Lutheran theology, and is not solely Jewish, is a complex though possibly fruitful question, but cannot be taken up in this paper.
8 It was ostensibly an unjustified rumor spread by Mahler’s widow, Alma Werfel, that led Schoenberg to believe his longtime friend of anti-Semitic tendencies. Regardless, Schoenberg’s having heard this news led him to the fateful conclusions that he made at the time.
9 Arnold Schoenberg, Letters, ed. Erwin Stein, trans. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, (London, 1964), p. 88.
10 ibid., p. 143.
11 ibid., p. 172.
12 Schoenberg, Moses und Aron, trans. my own.
13 Exodus, 2:22. All English translations of the Bible from The Jerusalem Bible, (Jerusalem, 1992).
14 Exodus, 3:6.
15 Exodus, 3:12.
16 This is represented musically by Moses’s Sprechstimme and Aaron’s coloratura tenor.
17 Exodus, 4:27-28.
18 Schoenberg, Moses und Aron, sound recording, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, (London, 1984), track 2.
19 It should be noted that the chances of Schoenberg consulting traditional biblical sources are high. One source that suggests this is his letter to Walter Eidlitz. Concerning the problem between smiting and speaking to the rock, Schoenberg asks: "You have worked on this material for so long: can you perhaps tell me where I could look up something on this question?" (Schoenberg, Letters, p. 172.)
20 "Moshe emet, ViTorahtoh emet."
21 "Aharon ohev shalom, ViRodef shalom."
22 Exodus, 5:22.
23 David Lewin, "Moses and Aaron: Some General Remarks and Analytic Notes for Act I, Scene 1", Die Wiener Schule ed. Rudolf Stephan, (Darmstadt, 1989), p. 127.
24 Exodus, 4:31.
25 Exodus, 32:1.
26 Ramban (Nachmanides), Commentary on the Torah: Exodus, trans. by Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel, (New York, 1973), p.549.
27 Rashi, Commentaries on the Pentateuch, selected and trans. by Chaim Pearl, (New York, 1970), p. 110.
28 Exodus, 32:2.
29 ibid., p. 110.
30 Ramban, Exodus, p. 551.
31 ibid., p. 554.
32 Letters, p. 172.
33 Exodus, 32:6.
34 Exodus, 32:8.
35 Exodus, 32:10.
36 Ramban, Exodus, p. 550.
37 Exodus, 32:22.
38 It is interesting that Schoenberg chooses to bring in the cloud of fire, which is described in the bible in Exodus 40:36-38, here. Aaron is customarily linked with the miracle of the cloud, as Hirsch writes: "To their three leaders, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam the nation had to thank for three benefits which provided for their existence in the wilderness, the well, the cloud and the manna. The well was due to the merit of Miriam, the cloud to Aaron and the manna to Moses." (The Pentateuch: Numbers, trans. and explained by Samson Raphael Hirsch, rendered into English by Isaac Levy, [London, 1960], p. 376.)
39 Clearly, both the fact that the conversion took place in Paris, not Vienna, and that by 1933 Hitler was already in power are crucial for understanding his return to Judaism. Nevertheless, his earlier experiences in Vienna, as has been noted, do seem to indicate a starting point for that return.
40 Der biblische Weg (The Biblical Way) is a play that presents the way the Jews must follow if they are to be successful in the creation of their own state. Only if the Jews choose to embrace the Law as the way to live in their newly created state, Schoenberg argues, will they be successful.
41 Ringer, p. 58.
42 ibid., p. 58.
43 Quoted in Harry Halbreich, program notes to Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, conducted by Pierre Boulez (1975), p. 5.