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    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.

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    Thursday, February 08, 2018

    Moses und Aron (1973):The Narrative

    This is part 2 of a series of posts about Straub and Huillet's film adaptation of Schönberg's opera "Moses und Aron". You can read them all here. Still from the 1957 Zürich stage production.
    Schönberg's libretto for "Moses und Aron" takes a highly selective approach to the story of Moses. Many of the most iconic scenes are excluded in their entirety. Moses' birth and childhood is excluded, his conflict with Pharaoh is absent, even the parting of the red sea/sea of reeds is omitted. “The emphasis here...accounts for the absence of those aspects of the biblical story which have little to do with revelation and communication - for example, Moses’ birth, his confrontation with the Pharaoh, and Mosaic legislation (Goldstein 155).

    Instead the film starts fairly late in the story, with Moses facing the burning bush at the moment God speaks to him (Ex 3-4). There is no build up, nor even any setting of the scene, we're not even shown Moses spying the bush burning from afar (Ex 3:2-3). The first sounds we hear are the sound of God. This moment is crucial from a musical point of view however, as the 12-note tone row upon which Schönberg bases the opera's music all derives from God's voice as variation and distortion. As Batnitzky explains:
    “The opera begins with a series of notes that express God’s presence at the scene of the burning bush.  These opening notes are the only text-expressive idea or theme dominating the entire opera.  However, with God's communication of God's self to Moses, the notes begin to sound distorted.  Schoenberg utilizes the purest form of his twelve-tone system, the opening notes through which the entire Opera is developed, to represent God.  He uses the distortion of the notes, which, as we will see, reaches its height in the character of Aron, to reflect the implicit tension that arises in the finite human's desire to know the infinite God.  (Batnitzky 2004: 6)
    Moses perceives God as "Einziger, ewiger, allgegenwärtiger, unsichtbarer und unvorstellbarer" ("Unique, eternal, omnipresent, unperceived and inconceivable") and hears God tell him to free his people ("Du mußt dein Volk daraus befrein!"), though it is not entirely clear as to what this means. When Moses expresses his concern that he will not be believed, God promises him that he will perform miracles ("Vor ihren Ohren wirst du Wunder - ihre Augen werden sie anerkennen") and when he continues to raise concerns, God tells him that Aron will be his mouthpiece ("Aron will ich erleuchten, er soll dein Mund sein").

    Scene 2 finds Moses returning to the "wateland" and meeting Aron, the two discuss God's message before returning to their people in Egypt. It's clear however, that not only does Aron not fully understand what Moses is telling him, but that neither he, nor Moses have fully comprehended what God has said. Moses insists that God is inconceivable and unseen; Aron questions how it is even possible to "worship what you dare not even conceive" ("kannst du lieben, was du dir nicht vorstellen darfst?").

    The two men return to Egypt to tell their people of God's message, but before they even arrive the people are speculating about the God that Moses is about to unveil (Scene 3). Before Moses can even begin to explain his vision of God they press upon him their idea of what God will be like, a God to whom they can make offerings, even "Leben opfern" ("living offerings"). When Moses tells them that God does not want offerings but demands everything ("fordert das Ganze") they reject him and his message. Whilst Aron continues to attempt to persuade them, Moses withdraws and doesn’t speak to the people again until he comes down from the mountain towards the end of Act 2.

    As Scene 4 continues Aron gradually concedes ground to the people, subverting Moses’ message still further. He turns Moses' staff into a snake, Moses' hand leprous and the waters of the Nile into blood. Wörner argues that essentially “Aaron’s miracles are feats of sorcery” (59). Certainly it's no accident that here it's Aron that strikes the rock, rather than Moses. Ultimately Aron even ends up promising the people physical good fortune ("leiblichen Glücks"). Eventually Aron's efforts at modifying his message in order to win the people's support pay off. “Aaron’s success with the people is evident in the concluding chorus of the first act, when they sing of Aaron’s promise” (Goldstein 158)

    Somewhat surprisingly, the second act starts with Moses on Mount Sinai convening with God. An interlude before the start of the second act has the chorus inquiring as to Moses' whereabouts. In other words Schönberg's libretto skips out several of the major incidents that dramatisations of the Exodus story usually include. So aside from the water turning to blood, all of the Moses' confrontation with Pharaoh, including the other plagues, is omitted. The instigation of the Passover and the death of the firstborn are also absent, as is the exodus itself. Perhaps for a work originally envisioned for the stage, the absence of the parting of the Red Sea / sea of reeds is not surprising, but certainly when considering Straub / Huillet's film, given the enormity of DeMille's two depictions of the event, its omission is striking. Lastly a number of other, less significant stories are excluded, such as the victory over the Amalekites (Ex 17) are excluded, those these have proven far less popular with filmmakers.

    Act II proper begins with unrest starting to come to a head in the Israelite camp.Under pressure, Aron creates the golden calf at the start of scene 3 and an orgy ensues. It's the opera's longest scene and features animal and human sacrifice, four naked virgins, widespread drunkenness, and the murder of a youth who speaks out against what is happening. Suddenly Moses reappears and at his command the golden calf simply disappears (Scene 4).

    The act's final scene, then, is a confrontation between Moses and his brother. “Moses smashes the Tablets not out of anger but to prove a point” (Tugenhaft), but the point is lost on Aron who has gained more confidence in his ideas about the importance of image in communicating God's message to the people. Aron argues that Moses destruction of the golden calf, and various other symbols, are themselves, other words that “word banishing image is also merely a representation of spiritual power” (Goldstein 158). When, at the end of the scene, the pillars of fire and cloud appear - symbols that could only originate from God himself - Aron seizes on them as examples of a "Gottes Zeichen" ("God-sent signal") thus arguing that God himself uses images to communicate to the people. As Aron exits with the people and God goes silent, Moses (and particularly his final lines) imply that “Moses, may indeed be guilty of having created an image - albeit a false one - of God, and image of God as an ineffable idea.” (Goldstein 159). Struck by this revelation Moses "sinkt verzweifelt zu Boden" ("sinks to the ground in despair") and Act II comes to a sudden close.

    As noted in my previous post, many productions of the opera end at this point, with Moses in despair at his failure to get his message across. Schönberg completed the orchestration for Act II, but left little music for Act III. There is, however, a completed libretto and the third, unfinished, act produces a very different conclusion to the story to that from the end of Act II. For David Poutney, who was the artistic director for Welsh National Opera's 2014 production of the opera, ending a production at the end of the second act gives a "rather false impression of the work, because we’re left with this ending with this kind of cliché... of the tragic ruler overwhelmed by his task, ‘heavy is the head’ and all that. Whereas actually the end was meant to be Act III [which] begins with Moses now surrounded by soldiers, not the people (Opera on 3).

    Once again there has been a significant passage of time between acts. The tide has turned such that Moses has once again gained the upper hand and Aron is now a prisoner. According to Goldstein, in the third act “Moses reappraises his ideas, assumes direct control”and speaks to the people directly for the first time" (Goldstein 161). He begins to use more powerfully communicative imagery, such as putting Aron in chains, or conducting a show trial. Aron is “accused of neglecting the word and constructing images that were estranged from idea...it is not Aaron’s images, but his false images” that are the problem (Goldstein 162).

    Furthermore, the lack of a musical accompaniment to the act adds to this idea. "(I)n an environment without music and song, he [Aron] can fall back on neither the ornamentation of his images nor the seductive beauty and overpowering effect of the bel canto tenor. The victory of Moses is complete and fully apparent” (Goldstein 164). This is, as Poutney says “a very brutal political conclusion to the opera” (Opera on 3). Seeing the failure of his initial message, and challenged by God's apparent use of imagery, Moses changes his position. However, whilst his new position is closer to the view that his brother had been arguing for, he does not team up with him, but supplant him, reclaiming his position and leaving his brother as a political prisoner.

    The end of the opera is even more surprising and, once again, rather sudden. Having seen Aron imprisoned and accused, the soldiers ask Moses if they should kill him ("Sollen wir ihn töten?"). Moses appears to have mercy and cast him into the wasteland, but Aron - whether due to a prior beating, or, perhaps, God's judgement - falls down dead. Moses reaction is to pronounce what appears to be a political slogan "Aber in der Wüste seid ihr unüberwindlich werdet" ("But in the desert you shall be invincible").

    - Batnitzky, Leora. (2004). The Image of Judaism: German-Jewish Intellectuals and the Ban on Images. Jewish Studies Quarterly. 11. 259-281.
    - Goldstein, Bluma (1992) Reinscribing Moses: Heine, Kafka, Freud, and Schoenberg in a European Wilderness, London: Harvard University Press.
    - Opera on 3: Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, (2014) - BBC Radio 3 programme featuring interviews with Christopher Cooke, 13 June 2014. Available online -http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p020y7jq
    - 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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