• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Tuesday, January 30, 2018

    Moses und Aron (1973): An Introduction

    Still from the 1959 Berlin performance
    Moses und Aron (1973) is arguably the most mentally challenging of all biblical films. The lack of discussion of it amongst scholars of the Bible on Film is not, to misquote G.K. Chesterton,  because it has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been found difficult and not tried. The film is directed by Jean Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, two filmmakers who though born in France went on to make most of their films in Germany and who are renowned for their austere and inaccessible style. Furthermore it is based on a complex and difficult atonal opera by Arnold Schönberg / Schoenberg, one of the best known examples of twelve-tone serialism. The result is a dense and challenging work that "manages to combine biblical commentary with timely political propaganda" (Tugenhaft). It's a piece that will alienate the vast majority of audiences but still have much to say, reflecting a key dilemma when looking at biblical films: the more entertaining and accessible they become, the less spiritual and vice versa.

    Given Straub and Huillet's unique filmmaking style, and in particular the faithful yet innovative way they handle their source material, it makes sense to examine Schönberg's contribution first in some detail, so that Straub and Huillet's treatment of it becomes clearer in future posts.

    For Schönberg, "Moses und Aron" was the culmination of his work adapting biblical narratives. His "interest in the musical statement of religious thought" first came to fruition with his oratorio "Die Jakobsleiter", based on the story of Jacob's Ladder, in 1917 Steiner, 41). Around this time he began to experiment with twelve-tone technique that typified the third, and final, phase in his career. Ten years later he wrote a play "Der biblische Weg" (The Biblical Way) which, like Preminger's Exodus (1960), explored the idea of a modern Jewish state whilst drawing on the biblical narratives about Moses. Later works included "Psalm 130" (1950) and the also unfinished "Modern Psalms".

    Initially Schönberg developed "Der biblische Weg" into an oratorio before converting it into a full blown opera, "Moses und Aron", and by the end of 1932 he had finished the first two acts and written the libretto for the third. Sadly it was to remain largely in that form even though "Schoenberg’s letters leave no room for doubt that he was firmly resolved to complete the work’s composition” (Wörner 91). The transition between to two pieces also coincides with Schönberg's return to Judaism, which was sparked by an anti-Semitic incident in Mattsee, Austria in 1921 but did not become official until he had fled from Berlin to Paris in 1933.

    Schönberg died in 1951 with the third and final act still unfinished. It did not even receive a full concert performance until 1954 in Hamburg and the first proper performance of the opera did not come until Zurich in 1957 (Wörner 104). Following its German premiére in Berlin, 1959 (pictured above), it was performed on only a few more occasions before Straub and Huillet decided to adapt it for the screen in the early seventies.

    The unfinished nature of the final act has led to different approaches towards its performnace. Performances have tended to either end at the close of Act II, or perform the final section without music. Indeed the lack of agreement as to the best approach goes back to the first two performances. “In Zurich it had been decided to close the performance with the end of the second act; the text of the third act was reproduced in the programme-book. In Berlin, the text of the third act was spoken on the stage by Moses and Aaron, in the manner of spoken drama, while, as a very soft background, the music of the first scene was relayed through a loudspeaker.” (Wörner 105) More recently, Hungarian composer Zoltán Kocsis developed his own score for the missing section, which was performed in Budapest in 2010 (Jeffries). Goldstein summarises a range of theories as to why Schönberg failed to complete the opera (151), before concluding that it is best to "explore the aesthetic implications of the opera as one whose third act is spoken and to resist speculating about the philosophical implications" of that for opera (152).

    In future posts I'm going to explore in more detail the story, the techniques Schönberg uses and key elements of his portrayal, before going on to look at Straub and Huillet's film in more detail.
    - Goldstein, Bluma (1992) Reinscribing Moses: Heine, Kafka, Freud, and Schoenberg in a European Wilderness, London: Harvard University Press.
    - Jeffries, Stuart (2014) "Schoenberg's Moses und Aron: the opera that comes complete with an orgy". The Guardian 15th May. Available online at - https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/may/15/schoenberg-moses-und-aron-opera-orgy 
    - Steiner, George (1965) “Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” Encounter (June), pp.40-46.
    - Tugenhaft, Aaron (1997) "Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron" in Sources: The Chicago Undergraduate Journal of Jewish Studies. Volume III. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20031013145056/

    - Wörner, Karl H. ([1963] 1959) Schoenberg’s ‘Moses und Aron’ trans. Paul Hamburger, London: Faber and Faber.

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