Think of last year in Europe and shudder: Islamist terrorism, waves of Middle Eastern refugees, Ukrainian woes, rising right-wing populism, destabilizing unemployment, an increasingly insecure European Union, and, of course, anti-Semitism. But lo, into the midst of this vexed continent came Moses, Aron, and Arnold.
In an arresting confluence of culture and politics, 2015 was also Arnold Schoenberg’s year. Berlin’s Komische Oper and the Opéra National de Paris (collaborating with Madrid’s Teatro Real) presented original stagings of Schoenberg’s defiant, unfinished Moses und Aron under the direction of Barrie Kosky and Romeo Castellucci, respectively. Schoenberg’s Moses is an intellectual opera if ever there was one. At its center is a profoundly troubling matter: Moses and Aron struggle over whether or not a pure idea is inevitably corrupted when translated into terms accessible to masses of people. Both productions featured masterly conducting of the notoriously thorny score from Vladimir Jurowski (in Berlin) and Philippe Jordan (in Paris). The casts were strong and the choruses mighty as audiences encountered Schoenberg’s brilliantly idiosyncratic interpretation of the story of Moses, Aron, and the Israelites in the wilderness.
After Moses und Aron, other Schoenberg works played at the Berlin Festival and in a Paris series that began by pairing the composer’s breakthrough Second String Quartet with his landmark Pierrot Lunaire. The Quartet unleashed furies in 1908 with its stretch into what became known as Schoenbergian atonality. In Pierrot, from 1912, a chamber ensemble accompanies Sprechstimme, a Schoenbergian declamation that hovers between speech and song, of a French symbolist’s poetry. Igor Stravinsky called it the “solar plexus” of musical modernism.
I saw Moses und Aron three weeks before the November 2015 massacres in Paris, but police were on manifest guard at the Bastille opera house. As it happens, only a few blocks away France’s Museum of Jewish History and Art was presenting an exceptional exhibit entitled Moses: Figures of a Prophet. It opened with a projection of Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner facing off across, and Israelites traversing, Cecil B. DeMille’s parting waters. Then came Jewish and Christian paintings, lithographs, haggadahs, and tapestries, from the Renaissance on. Here was Moses prefiguring Jesus; there he was a liberator opposing political absolutism. Here is Napoleon, who razed ghetto walls, as Mosaic lawgiver; there is 19th-century painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim linking law to Jewish emancipation in German lands. Twentieth-century canvasses associated Moses with Herzl or, in Chagall’s case, made him “intimate and universal,” as the curators put it. One section pointed to Mosaic motifs in the American civil rights movement, most famously in Martin Luther King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. Near the end of the exhibit, the visitor could see extracts from a 2009 German production of Moses und Aron, along with The Gaze of Michelangelo, a 17-minute visual meditation from 2004 on the famous statue of Moses in Rome by its sculptor’s 20th-century namesake, Michelangelo Antonioni. Aged and fragile from a stroke, filmmaker Antonioni stands before and touches the monumental marble figure of the Jewish lawgiver. Where Schoenberg reworked the story of revelation at Sinai through sound and theater to lay out his own aesthetic, spiritual, and political concerns, Antonioni engages the still Moses statue in silence. Antonioni’s visible awe is deeply human and makes a fine curatorial contrast with Schoenberg, who once declared, “My Moses is like Michelangelo’s, if only in appearance. He is not at all human.”
Schoenberg disdained the word “atonal” and bristled when he was called “revolutionary.” His quest was to find new ways of expression to sustain classical German music. He followed, he said, a “reactionary way” because of orders “from The Most High.” And while he was not a political philosopher, political metaphors mix often with spiritual ones in his writings on music. At the age of 24 Vienna-born Schoenberg converted from Judaism to Lutheranism, and, though he would go on to reverse the conversion, one way to describe his project might be to call it an attempt at something like a musical Reformation. “It has never been the purpose and effect of new art to suppress the old, its predecessor, certainly not to destroy it,” he explained in his Theory of Harmony. The “appearance of the new,” he elaborated, is a “natural growth of the tree of life” even if “trees” with “an interest in preventing the flowering . . . would surely call it revolution. And conservatives of winter would fight against each spring . . . Short memory and meager insight suffice to confuse growth with overthrow . . .”
In 1922 he told his friend abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky, who thought Schoenberg was doing in sounds what he was doing on canvas, that his music was written “without any ‘ism’ in mind.” He also once asked “by what chord would one diagnose the Marxist confession in a piece of music, and by what color the Fascist one in a picture?” Still, he held that “no great work of art . . . does not convey a new message to humanity,” a “prophetic message” of “a higher form of life.”
What was new in Schoenberg’s music? Instead of composing in, say, E flat or G major, the usual way of anchoring a musical work, Schoenberg cast off such “traditional grammar” and created a musical language that ruled out “all taboos,” as composer Ernst Krenek summarized it, by treating all notes more or less equally. In the 1920s Schoenberg turned this “free atonality” into composition by a “12-tone” (or “serial”) method. Recreating rules, he composed by transforming “tone rows” fashioned from the dozen semitones of the chromatic scale. Tones “related only to one another,” allowing none to have “supremacy,” Schoenberg explained, calling this apparent democracy of notes “the emancipation of dissonance.” To explain: We hear consonance when two or more tones sound complete together (or following one another); dissonance, by contrast, sounds off-putting. Music needs both, but when they don’t progress in the usual way, then, well, emancipating dissonance imparts new ambivalences in sound. The political resonances of such musical technique were surely evident to Schoenberg, although he denied that his concern was anything but art.
Moses und Aron is often acclaimed as the composer’s 12-tone masterpiece, and audiences have always found its music and words challenging in a way that earlier biblical works such as Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt or operas like Rossini’s Moses in Egypt and Verdi’s Nabucco were not. Like them, Moses und Aron incarnates “the people” in choruses, but you can’t hum along with Schoenberg. He wrote the opera between 1928 and 1932, in an era of leaders and masses in perilous embrace, and his libretto is as provocative as his music.
German politics was, of course, the principal reason why Schoenberg never completed his opera. When he left Germany, he left a three-act libretto with music for the first two. “Today there are more important things than art,” he is said to have uttered in spring 1933, as he walked out on a speech in Berlin exulting the new führer’s coming efforts to end the “Jewish stranglehold” on music. Soon in Paris (on his way finally to Los Angeles), he re-converted to Judaism. Marc Chagall served as an official witness. In the 18 remaining years of his life, Schoenberg never saw Moses und Aron staged, and the Guggenheim Foundation rejected his request for a grant to finish it. Slowly, sporadically, his unfinished opera joined the repertoire after his death in 1951.
The new Berlin production was a stimulating if troubling rumination about what joins particular—that is, Jewish—to universal existential questions. Director Barrie Kosky dubs himself a “gay, Jewish kangaroo” (he is Australian), and the Komische Oper has received accolades since he became its artistic head in 2012. Kosky’s Moses was billed as marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and images of the Holocaust are vital to his production.
Shirtless Moses returns from the mountaintop with the Ten Commandments carved bloody into his body, as if to say that attaining the law from above has been as painful to him as beholding the Israelite orgy before an idol below. Meanwhile, on the side, an old Hollywood-style camera films the choral bacchanalia around the Calf. It is manned by Aron and puppets of famous modern Jewish figures who are often associated with Moses: Herzl in top hat; Marx, the prophet of a different Promised Land; Freud, whose Moses and Monotheism was also written under the Nazi shadow; and, of course, Schoenberg (the only beardless prophet in the bunch). Members of the modern-dressed chorus of Israelites manipulate life-size dolls, many stereotyping Jews. Dismembered, these dolls pile up in a death camp image, from which law-inscribed Moses materializes.
The Golden Calf scene, wrote Schoenberg in a 1933 letter, represented “the core of my thought.” It signified “a sacrifice made by the masses, trying to break loose from a ‘soulless’ belief.” Renowned for single-mindedness, Schoenberg provided extensive instructions for the violent convulsions in this scene, including priests slitting the throats of naked virgins (a decidedly unbiblical detail). The music, as the perceptive critic Malcolm MacDonald notes, is a dance-symphony of “rhythmic force and . . . barbaric energy.”
Schoenberg wrote that he wanted “to leave as little possible to those new despots . . . the producers.” It is easy to appreciate his disquiet about directorial hubris, but perhaps he went too far: A creative director’s staging of Moses und Aron may be no more distant from Schoenberg’s original idea than his libretto is from Book of Exodus. The important question is whether or not a source, biblical or otherwise, is expropriated intelligently. Kosky is smart and creative (although cameo-parades of iconic Jews are a bit wearisome by now), and his Berlin is, after all, very far from Schoenberg’s. Germany’s 21st-century capital is an effervescent, if still haunted, place.
Kosky’s stage is largely vacant, a modern wasteland of rising steps on which oriental carpets have been cast. Moses rolled out from a rug with a paisley bow tie and a frilly, purple speckled shirt under his formal suit. The contrast between the opera’s seriousness of purpose and the droll appearances of Moses, who seems anxious as much as determined, and wily Aron, who surfaces in a dinner jacket and like Moses wears a magician’s top hat, should make us ask: To whom should these biblical figures, these ur-Jews, appear comic? How do they see themselves?
Schoenberg’s Moses is driven by “Thought,” the Pure Idea that comes from encountering the Voice from the Burning Bush. He cannot convey it because his “tongue is inflexible.” The Voice articulates through a small chorus mixing speech and lyricism (six vocalists are in the orchestra pit). Moses declaims in baritone Sprechstimme. The Voice calls on him to liberate his kin. But how can one persuade enslaved masses, who see and have nothing, of something Moses, a stutterer in the Bible, calls “invisible” and “omnipresent”?
If Moses insists on “thinking the inconceivable,” Aron, a tenor, can communicate the Idea lyrically, by song, images, wonders, and enticements (it is advantageous to be chosen by the “one powerful God”). Moses cannot abide these impurities. Aron embraces the Idea, but he is also a crafty manipulator of images, symbols, and words on its behalf. His first appearance on stage is accompanied by what Malcolm MacDonald calls “suave, elegant yet unsubstantial dance music for flutes, violins and harps.” Yet Aron grasps the difficulties in remaking the people he loves. It is said that Schoenberg identified with Moses. Still, his opera’s vigor depends significantly on Aron’s case, which Schoenberg made formidable.
One of the liberties Schoenberg takes with the Bible is to change the audience of the famous miracles performed by Moses to convince the pharaoh. Here, Aron presents them to the Israelites to bring them to the Idea. When the staff becomes a serpent, he sings:
In Moses’ hand a rigid rod: this, the law.
In my own hand the most supple of serpents:
In English that last word, cleverness, does not catch the ambiguities suggested by the original German. Die Klugheit might plausibly be rendered “prudence” or “clear-sightedness.” We are left, then, with another question: Should laws serve or discipline? In Kosky’s production, the staff is a magician’s wand.
Schoenberg’s intellectual masterstroke may be in the second act’s denouement. Moses has returned from the mountain to see the orgy around the Golden Calf (a plumed female performer in Kosky’s production) that Aron has helped fashion. He does not smash the tablets straight away but confronts Aron, who, in turn, points at the stone tablets and says: “they are images too.” Then Moses shatters the Decalogue. Presumably this is what Kosky tried to recreate by placing Moses, commandments on chest and back, with piled-up puppet-corpses. It makes a kind of dramatic sense, but it isn’t as compelling as those stark four words that Schoenberg gave Aron, arguing that the Idea is always trapped by representation.
Moses sinks to the ground and despairs to the sound of a violin’s tone holding steady: “Word, o Word that fails me.” This is where Schoenberg’s music stops. Sometimes the music-less third act is read or performed, but it was not in the productions in Berlin and Paris. The two brothers still argue. But Aron is under arrest. Should we kill him? a guard asks. Moses commands Aron’s release with a caveat: He can live “if he can.” That is, with mere images but no true Idea. The opera closes with Aron falling lifeless and Moses still reaching for the eternal Idea.
One difference between Kosky’s Berlin production and the one mounted by Castellucci in Paris is that Castellucci is mainly interested in expropriating Schoenberg for his own purposes. So before turning to his staging it will be useful to get a sense of Schoenberg’s political itinerary. Schoenberg protested more than once that he was not “political,” but he was not very convincing. As a young man, friends introduced him to Marxist theories and he was “strongly in sympathy” with social democratic goals. He conducted workers’ chorales and two of his closest friends, Oskar Adler and David Josef Bach, had important social democratic links. Adler’s brother Max was an eminent Kantian-Marxist theorist. Schoenberg may have learned some Marxism from these contacts, but what remained urgent for him was Kant’s insistence that science and religion were radically distinct domains. Not unlike Maimonides in this orientation, Schoenberg saw the breach between the two realms as akin to that between true leaders (or artists) with ideas and “the masses” (or audiences). This tension is present in every aspect of Moses und Aron.
“Comrade Schoenberg,” as it seems he was once known, discovered what he later called “differences between me and a laborer,” namely, that he was “bourgeois.” In 1912 he thought of a “Jacob’s ladder” oratorio. Its subject: “modern man [who], 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” and learns to pray. Even when, in his youth, he was a frank non-believer, Schoenberg thought that the Bible addressed the “most difficult questions.”
“Rightly or wrongly,” he would write, “it is not everyone’s business to concern himself with difficult and profound things . . . But the part of the public that is to be won over could and should be won over as soon as possible.” As in art, so in politics—sometimes. He despised the Soviet experiment; he was (oddly) more contemptuous of than outraged by Mussolini; he found pacifism naïve; he excoriated totalistic views of the world, exempting his own singular religiosity. He mocked German racism on the somewhat disconcerting grounds that it modeled itself on Jewish chosenness: While “we are chosen to think the idea of the unitary, eternal, unimaginable, unrepresentable and invisible God,” German prejudice focused “on appearances.” Lacking “the Idea,” Germans measured parts of the body.
And what about democracy in those dire hours? He wrote to Thomas Mann in 1939 that he knew democracy’s value but also its weaknesses. Its “exaggerated” insistence on free expression abetted those who wanted it overthrown. Thus “democracy everywhere has proven itself unable to deal with opposition [to democracy].” Schoenberg responded angrily when anyone suggested that Moses und Aron evoked his own struggle for audiences for his music or that it had political resonance. Still, in May 1934, he wrote a letter to Rabbi Stephen Wise in which he described the Society for the Private Performance of Music he had founded in Vienna some 15 years earlier. “I called myself then the first dictator of Europe!” he wrote, insisting that he was “fully aware of the implications.” What mattered was musical experience, but he was the sole arbiter of that experience. Subscribers received no advance program and critics were barred.
Schoenberg’s views of the world had taken a dramatic shift in 1921. He had gone with his family to Mattsee, a resort near Salzburg, to work on “Jacob’s Ladder.” The local authorities demanded his baptismal certificate. Livid, he quit the place. In a letter to his friend Kandinsky (who he had been led to believe held anti-Semitic views) he wrote:
For I have at last learned the lesson that has been forced upon me . . . and I shall not ever forget it . . . 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.
If passers-by wondered if he were Christian or Jew, he would not say, “I’m the one Kandinsky and some others make an exception of.” In any event, “that man Hitler is not of their opinion.” It is a prescient, even astonishing remark, given that it was written half a year before Hitler became famous for his Beer Hall Putsch.
Kandinsky protested that nationality was of “the greatest indifference” to him, that he loved Schoenberg as a human being and as an artist, and that he didn’t want the Jewish question to upend friendship. Still arguing more with anti-Semitism than with Kandinsky, Schoenberg responded with forceful rhetorical questions:
I ask: Why do people say that the Jews are like what their black-marketeers are like?
Do people also say that the Aryans are like their worst elements? Why is an Aryan judged by Goethe, Schopenhauer and so forth? Why don’t people say the Jews are like Mahler . . .?
What every Jew reveals by his hooked nose is not only his own guilt but also that of all those with hooked noses who don’t happen to be there too. But if a hundred Aryan criminals are all together, all that anyone will be able to read from their noses is their taste for alcohol, while for the rest they will be considered respectable people.
How could Kandinsky not be irate at the bigots? seethed Schoenberg. Because of communists? “I am not one.” Because of the Elders of Zion? That is “a fairy-tale.” “Or do you think that I owe . . . my knowledge and skill to Jewish machinations in high places?”
Schoenberg began an intense study of Zionism, became an advocate of Jewish statehood, and wrote a (tedious) propaganda play, The Biblical Way. In it, he explained to the Zionist essayist Jacob Klatzkin, he tried to tell “the story of how the Jews became a people.” The actual site of the play’s “New Palestine” is unclear since Schoenberg’s thinking was then “territorialist” rather than outright Zionist: A Jewish haven was needed somewhere, anywhere. The play’s protagonist is a Herzlian leader whose name blends those of Moses and Aron. In Max Aruns’ view, “Moses . . . used forty years of wandering . . . for the purpose of accustoming the rising generations to a life governed by laws.” Aruns is finally unable to be both Moses and Aron. His powers dissipate and an uprising among followers dooms him, but the project— the Idea—survives.
The composer soon began talking of, indeed planning for, a “United Jewish Party” with himself as leader. In his more grandiose moments, he imagined flying across the continent addressing publicly the growing emergency. He considered attending Zionist conclaves and often sounded similar to Vladimir Jabotinsky, leader of the Zionist right wing, who demanded “pure,” “monistic” nationalism in opposition to the Zionist left’s mix of particularistic with universalistic ideas. Schoenberg stressed “oneness” like Jabotinsky, but dissented from his demand to proclaim Zionism’s “final goal” (a state in all of biblical Palestine) and his campaign to boycott Germany (which Schoenberg thought ill-conceived). Schoenberg found Jabotinsky insufferably arrogant—a character trait that is often ascribed to the composer.
“Oneness” for Schoenberg became increasingly a simple matter of Jewish solidarity together with monotheism, and both became prominent features of his work. After the Holocaust he composed a
potent, short cantata entitled “A Survivor from Warsaw.” It culminates in his own chorale rendition of “Sh’ma Yisrael.”
Problems of the modern—or is it postmodern?—Western world animated Romeo Castellucci’s brilliant treatment of Moses und Aron in Paris. In his production, Aron’s staff created—or did it become?—a jet engine. Or was it a space probe? Either way, it was a machine that moves above, not soaring but hovering over the Israelites, a bit like Sprechstimme hovers between speech and song. The director, who also designed the sets, seems to be suggesting that we have made technology into an idol.
Castellucci’s show was a meditation on Schoenberg’s musical and theatrical achievement that cannily deployed the composer’s own mythic explorations of aesthetics, Judaism, and politics to ask questions about the nature of ideas, nature itself, humanity, technology, and Western society. Castellucci has been an eminent figure in Europe’s avant-garde theater since the 1990s, but his opera career began only in 2011, improbably with Wagner’s last work, Parsifal, for the Brussels Opera. Conspicuous visual reminiscences link this now notorious staging to his new Moses und Aron. Both stagings employ the primary color of purity—white—to saturate the stage by means of screens, backdrops, lighting, and costumes. There were also reminiscences of Castellucci’s previous engagement with Moses, a widely discussed play (Go Down, Moses) performed in Paris in 2014 whose preoccupation was “a burning idea that does not consume itself.”
Parsifal is the polar opposite of Moses und Aron. It includes much metaphysical hoo-hah along with heavy-handed Christian symbolism and Wagner’s neuroses about purity, particularly of a sexual-racial kind. By contrast, Schoenberg’s Moses is obsessed with purity of an Idea. Will he be able to impart it to desert-bound slaves? The music is so disconcerting and often jagged that you cannot become aesthetically anesthetized as in Wagner; you must be alert to the intellectual issues, even if the metaphysics don’t suit you. Castellucci interrogated Wagner and paid tribute to Schoenberg. While music did its stuff in Parsifal’s “Prelude” (overture), the face of Nietzsche, who went famously from Wagner sycophant to stinging critic, materialized, recalling censure rather than submission to sonorous temptations.
The first moments of the Paris Moses und Aron were stunning. If Nietzsche’s picture posed questions about memory and aesthetic experience in one way, here Castellucci did so in another. A black screen traversed the stage. Projected onto it was a white tape recorder—a pre-digital memory machine whose double spools recall the two tablets of the law. As it turned, or perhaps scrolled, an image of a Golden Calf, or perhaps it was an ox, emerged. It reappeared later in the form of a massive, very alive golden animal for the orgiastic dance by the Israelites, performed in stylized slow entwinements of the chorus. (Press reports said that the Opéra prepared the ton-and-a-half creature for months by piping Schoenberg’s music daily into its pen.)
When Moses first encounters the Voice, he wraps himself in tape descending from the spools from on high. Castellucci wants us never to forget that Moses’ “calling,” an event we “remember,” has been recorded, re-recorded, and re-staged throughout Western history.
Moses and Aron blend in and out of whiteness, and so, importantly, does the chorus, the People. Sometimes you actually have to squint to see them while listening to Schoenberg’s difficult music. Perhaps in casting Moses and Aron against whiteness, Castellucci is suggesting the difficulties humans face when tangling with a pure idea. Or is he only evoking a desert wasteland? Or are these supposed to be ghostly figures of history? No sharply etched answers offer themselves, just Castellucci’s visual inducement to wonder: to take seriously the issues opened by the opera. We are somehow urged to engage imponderables—but ironically in white and soon black.
Where the recorder and the Calf’s image once were, words are projected at appropriate moments, as the siblings converse and exchange positions on stage: “Brothers,” “Land,” “Horizon,” “Path,” “Space.” When the People, clad in white, emerge out of whiteness they seem to be struggling to achieve their own image. As they celebrate the Calf in the second act, in which Castellucci perhaps tries to do too much, they descend into spiritual grunge by literally going into a rectangular black liquid bath that might be mistaken for a heavy-water pool in a nuclear plant. Black muck is also poured on the Calf and Aron, who, during the raucous dance, wears a calf’s head. He is also wound up, trapped in that black recording tape.
The backdrop at the opera’s end, however, is not simply white and black; a mountain emerges, not one that would rise above a desert but a beautiful snow-covered peak, perhaps like those in the Alps that Schoenberg might have seen not far from Mattsee. Moses re-emerges with two shofars that he throws down in anger. It is unclear (at least to me) if these horns were supposed to have come from the Golden Calf (or ox), or if they were meant to suggest the “horns” atop Michelangelo’s Moses. Or, since shofar blasts heralded the revelation at Sinai, perhaps Moses’s action was meant to mirror the breaking of the tablets. In any case, Castellucci’s arresting, truly staggering visual imagination seems here to miss the concentrated verbal power of Aron’s rejoinder to Moses, that the Tables of the Law are also images. Both the Berlin and the Paris productions thus had difficulties penetrating this vital instant. Castellucci’s Moses throws a bucket of water on sludge-covered Aron. The point is obvious, but Schoenberg’s philosophical insight was more bracing: Moses cannot clean up or deny the problem of representation.
Castellucci concludes with an ironic but extraordinary visual synopsis of the opera’s themes. As Moses, apparently defeated, declaims his wordlessness, the mountain transforms from a realistic image into its own white outline—its Idea—against starry heavens. (In German “Schoenberg” means “beautiful mountain.”)
A story, perhaps apocryphal, tells of an Austro-Hungarian officer who, during World War I, recognized the name of a new conscript. Was he the “controversial composer”? “Well sir,” replied Schoenberg, “it’s like this: Somebody had to be, and nobody else wanted to, so I took on the job myself.” Could he say that today? Why Schoenberg and his Moses und Aron now? For all their divergences, the two productions made Schoenberg’s motifs compelling for today’s uneasy West. Both the Berlin and the Paris productions conjured up the political and spiritual danger of images, the difficulty of ideas, the arguable meanings of law, and the power of religion. And then, of course, there is the Jewish Question.
Schoenberg’s originality, his quest for keyless art, emerged in a politically and culturally dangerous discordant era. Europe today is not reliving the first decades of the 20th century. But then and now, old concepts have become uncertain. Sometimes art distills, and sometimes it anticipates. Schoenberg did not just show up for the job. Things sound edgy again in Europe.
We have never met this Mendele before, but he expects us to trust him, appreciate his wit, catch his references, and share his attitudes. In a few deft lines, the author created a figure so democratic you don’t have to look up to him, so familiar you don’t have to fear him, and so appealing you won’t realize you’re being flogged.
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