• 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, February 20, 2018

    Moses und Aron (1973): Schönberg's Techniques

    This is part 3 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 1965 Covent Garden performance in London.
    Given the particular manner in which Schönberg selects, edits and adapts the biblical material it's temptingly simple to concentrate solely on the words of the opera's libretto and not consider what he is trying to achieve with his music. Yet clearly, particularly for an experimental and pioneering composer such as Schönberg, his unique approach to the opera's composition is hugely significant. Indeed, as Steiner puts it, "it is difficult to conceive of a work in which music and language interact more closely than in Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (40)." Indeed he even goes as far to suggest that it is "impertinent to write about the opera if one is unable to analyse its powerful, immensely original musical structure" (Steiner 40).

    Twelve Tone Atonal Serialism
    Much of this relates to Schönberg's use of twelve-tone atonal serialism. This broke away from the traditional method of composition where a piece of music prioritises a particular note as the "key". Instead it sought to give all 12 notes in an octave equal footing. Schönberg had been experimenting with atonality as early as the 1910s, long before "Moses und Aron", but this particular form of it developed in the early 1920s, and it rarely made such a key contribution as it does here.  Of course, there are various other techniques which he uses to impart meaning to the work. It is, therefore, well worth recalling Wörner's observation that “(I)t is not the text, but the score...which gives us the key to Aaron’s character”, applies to the work in general (83).

    There were a number of different factors that led Schönberg to develop twelve-tone serialism. On the one hand, his belief that tonal music had lost its capacity to produce the tension necessary for musical meaning" had driven him towards atonality in the first place (Batnitzky 2001: 10). However, he felt that what the existing forms of atonal music lacked was a "firmer structural basis" (Reti 62). A third problem was that "'atonal' music no longer led to the resolution that would create melodies as western music had come to recognize them" (Batnitzky 2001: 10). The tension that produced musical expression had been lost in early forms of tonality due to this lack of order.

    The result was Twelve Tone Atonal Serialism, an organised tonality which arranges all twelve notes into a strict order (or 'series') and then derives the melodies from that. As Reti explains "(t)o replace one structural force (tonality) with another (increased thematic oneness) is indeed the fundamental idea behind the twelve note technique" (63). "The series thus provides a coherent framework whose structural functions replace those of traditional tonality...By seeking to create melodies using serialism, Schoenberg aimed to reinstate the tension necessary for musical expression that tonality had lost.” (Batnitzky 2001: 10)

    The key ideas in all of this, then, the sense of order, the sense of unity and the sense of equality between differently pitched notes fitted well with the religious ideas Schönberg wished to explore. However, whilst these ideas could be embraced by a number of major religious philosophies, Schönberg also saw his work not only as of Judaism, but indeed advancing its cause. His experiences with anti-Semitism had convinced him of the need to embolden his people, who he realised would never be accepted by the German people, and ultimately to argue for their unique place in the world. Again this was as much about the music as it was about the libretto as Steiner makes clear:
    “By introducing into music, whose classical development and modes seemed to embody the very genius of the Christian and Germanic tradition, a new syntax, an uncompromisingly rational and apparently dissonant ideal, Schoenberg was performing an act of great psychological boldness and complexity. Going far beyond Mahler, he was asserting a revolutionary—to its enemies an alien, Jewish—presence in the world of Bach and Wagner. Thus the twelve-tone system is related, in point of sensibility and psychological context, to the imaginative radicalism, to the ‘subversiveness’ of Cantor’s mathematics or Wittgenstein’s epistemology.” (Steiner 42)
    The result is a work that "is technically more demanding than any other major opera" (Steiner 41). Performers from the 2014 Welsh National Opera production described it as "fiendish" noting how the "concentration levels required are immense, if you lose concentration for a second you can be gone for pages" (Opera on 3). For Steiner "the quality of the religious-philosophic conflict requires from the performers and producer an unusual range of insight and sympathy (Steiner 41). It is worth repeating an extensive quote from Louise Ratcliffe, a member of the chorus from the Welsh National Opera to give an insight into the difficulty in performing the piece:
    "There’s no melody and that makes it very difficult. The only thing I can compare it to, is if you’re an actor learning a script in English, but all of the lines have English words in them but they don’t make a proper sentence so you have to learn each word individually because you can’t just think of the sentence, and then you’ve got two acts like that, and then you’ve got six different lines all doing different things and then you’ve got to put it all together.” (Opera on 3)
    The complexity faced by performers is a result of “the vast creative opportunities inherent in serial composition” (Johnson 3). The absence of a key means that the absence of the kinds of melodies that are typical of western compositions and the need to vary the rhythm and octave of each note means that the next few notes are usually difficult to predict. As Wörner explains “Each single note may appear within the range of any octave... furthermore, the rhythmic combinations in which the notes may be grouped, are unlimited, the number of possibilities becomes well-nigh inexhaustible” (93).

    For Johnson, “twelve-tone serialism emerged as a method of bringing order and structure to the world of atonality. Schoenberg's new compositional technique is built on the systematic ordering of all twelve pitch classes of the chromatic scale rather than any sort of tonal hierarchy” (18). Each composition is based on an initial 'tone row', an specific ordering of the twelve chromatic notes where each is used only once. The tone row is then repeated throughout the opera, but rhythm, octave and the length of each note can be ordered. It is also possible to make other changes to the way that pattern appears, such as playing them in reverse order (called 'retrograde' transformation), or inverting them (so that going down two notes in the original tone row equals going up two notes in the inversion). Also because the central idea is to do with how the notes relate to the initial note, that initial note can be of any pitch, so long as those that follow it are shifted up or down by the corresponding number of notes.

    Perle summarises twelve-tone serialism as having four main characteristics:
    1. The row is a specific ordering of all twelve notes of the chromatic scale (without regard to octave placement).
    2. No note is repeated within the row.
    3. The row may be subjected to interval-preserving transformation - that is, it may appear in inversion, retrograde, or retrograde-inversion, in addition to its "original" or prime form.
    4. The row in any of its four transformations may begin on any degree of the chromatic scale, in other words it may be freely transposed. Transpositions are indicated by an integer between a and 11 denoting the number of semitones: thus if the original form of the row is denoted P0,then P1 denotes its transposition upward by one semitone. (Perle 27)

    It is also worth pointing out that, in an orchestral situation such as with an opera, the different parts of any sequence can be performed by any of the instruments, so one instrument might begin the series of twelve notes, another might continue it and another might complete the row.

    The Tone Row
    However, whilst this is the musical basis for the opera, one of the techniques that Schönberg applies is for the initial row to become 'distorted' as the opera goes on. Deviations from the original tone row, aside from the variations outlined by Perle, are possible, and indeed allowable, particularly if making a point, but Schönberg reckoned this ought not to happen until “the later part of a work, when the set had already become familiar to the ear” (Schoenberg and Stein: 226)

    This is why the point at which Schönberg begins the narrative is particularly significant. By beginning just as God is about to speak to Moses for the first, and most decisive time, means that the opening notes - the twelve notes that define the tone row upon which the whole opera is written - come from the voice of God, expressing his desire to communicate to humanity. "Schoenberg utilizes the purest form of his twelve-tone system, the opening notes through which the entire Opera is developed, to represent God" (Batnitzky 2001: 11). As Johnson notes, “the tone row becomes a character in-and-of itself, transforming and shifting to mirror dramatic events and becoming a driving force throughout the opera” (Johnson 1).

    Whilst Batnitzky seems to include allowable variations within his use of the term 'distortion' he nevertheless summarises how Schönberg uses this technique to create meaning.
    "However, with God's communication of God's self to Moses, the notes begin to sound distorted. The distortion of the notes in 'Moses und Aron'...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. The distortion of the notes results from the notes representing God's self” (Batnitzky 2001: 11).
    "Aron's presence in the opera is marked by yet a further distortion of the original series that comes with God's communication. The difference between Aron's distortion and the distortion that comes from God's own speaking is that Aron's distortion actually verges on tonality. Aron's distortion involves chords with intervals of thirds and sevenths, intervals closely associated with traditional tonality" (Batnitzky 2001: 13).
    In other words, God's message, his self-communication if you will, is perfect and defines the basis for all that follows, but as Aron tries firstly to understand it, and then to communicate it to his people, before lastly attempting to get them to accept it, the music deviates more and more from the tone row that God's voice initially established. As Aron compromises God's message more and more, the more the music breaks the rules of twelve-tone serialism.

    Sprechstimme / Sprechgesang
    In contrast, to his treatment of Aaron, Schönberg uses another specific technique to bolster his characterisation of Moses. Taking seriously Moses' admission in Exodus 4:10 that far from being eloquent he was actually "slow of speech", Schönberg does not have Moses sing (except for one line).1 Instead he delivers his lines in a style that is neither spoken nor sung, but is somewhere in between. This 'in-between' style is known variously as either sprechstimme or sprechgesang, where the former is closer to speech and the latter to singing. On the score to "Moses and Aron" his notes have a pitch, that is a place on the stave, but instead of beginning round notes, they are marked by crosses.2

    According to Sir John Tomlinson, who has played the role of Moses numerous times since 1999, and will be reprising it in Dresden later this year, there "is a continual tension between how much this part should be sung and how much it should be spoken. Now if he [Moses] were completely normal and fluent on the opera stage, Moses would be singing the whole role, but he isn’t. He is disabled to some extent, psychologically and physically. He is not fluent in speech” (Opera on 3).

    This contrasts strongly with Aron who "has a gift of fluency, which is readily apparent in his agile bel canto singing style” (Goldstein 155). As Batnitzky puts it “Aron sings while Moses speaks. This has the obvious effect of associating Aron with beauty and Moses with thought” (2001: 13). It's an effective way of highlighting one of the key details we know about Moses that most dramatic portrayals leave out. It does however mean that the opera does not translate well into other languages and so is best appreciated in the original German. As Steiner observes “To alter the words— their cadence, stress, tonalities— as must be done in translation, is tantamount to altering the key relations or orchestration in a piece of classical music.” (Steiner 42)

    Schönberg's use of sprechgesang is also a good example of another key element of the piece: the interplay between opposites. In an opera where everybody else sings, Moses is only given “a speaking role; the proclaimer of the idea, significantly, is denied song” (Wörner 83). Tomlinson cites various examples of such "struggle and tension between opposites" including the "musical opposites of the twelve tone system versus tonality" and "the religious idea of the purity of God versus the profanity of the orgy scene in the second act" (Opera on 3). Clearly the characters of Moses and Aron are in some sense opposites, though, interestingly, some productions have tried to physically portray them as similarly as possible to make them appear like opposing forces within the same personality. At the same time, it is also important to note that by making the role of Moses “a speaking role; the proclaimer of the idea, significantly, is denied song” (Wörner 83).

    Sixes and Twelves
    For Wörner, it seems "that some mystical number-symbolism is at the back of Schoenberg’s music, as it is of Bach’s" (88). Indeed David Poutney has said, that for Schönberg, “music is maths plus mysticism” (Opera on 3).3

    This interest in numbers affects the work in a number of different ways. It is notable, for example, that the title of the piece "Moses und Aron" is twelve letters long, when the natural German title ("Moses und Aaron" would be thirteen. Whilst most scholars take the view that this is due more to Schönberg's superstitious beliefs about the number thirteen, it seems likely that the idea of a twelve lettered title for a work of twelve-tone serialism was also a factor.

    The atonal nature of the piece and its emphasis on the twelve notes, make the importance of the number twelve clear, but it also appears that the number six has a certain significance within the work. As Wörner observes "Six notes, twice three, are contained in the symbols of divine will. Six solo voices form the (sung) voice of God; a six-part speaking chorus forms the voice from the Burning Bush that conveys the biddings of the divine will” (89).

    But Wörner  sees additional significant uses of the number six. “Throughout the opera, the major sixth symbolizes the people of Israel;” (72). Furthermore, "(t)he major sixth is characteristic of God’s promise to the people, while the minor sixth a kind of inflection of it, and as such specially characteristic of Aaron, with his exuberance, his emphatic intensity and his thinking in images”. (74). For a while, “Aaron still tries to mediate (vacillation between major and minor sixth)" (72), but ultimately in "the songs of jubilation (‘Joyous Israel!’) which precede the worship of the Golden Calf, the sixth is no longer to be found;” (72).

    Ultimately, then, Schönberg uses a number of techniques to enhance the meanings inherent within his opera, most significantly the way he uses the twelve note atonal serialism and in particular the tone row, Moses' use of Sprechstimme / Sprechgesang and the use of the numbers six and twelve. But beyond these issues relating to his themes in this piece, the work has a broader significance. As Steiner concludes "Schoenberg has deliberately used a genre saturated with nineteenth-century values of unreality and modish display to express an ultimate seriousness. In so doing he reopened the entire question of opera.” (41). His opera was not so much an attempt to create a historically sound portrayal of its two protagonists, but an exploration of the tension inherent in the idea of an eternal, unique, and inconceivable God seeking to communicate with humanity.

    1 - The line Moses sings falls "at the conclusion of initial discussion with Aaron, in a plea to 'Purify your thinking'” (Goldstein 157).
    2 - It is important to note as Laurence Cole, one of the performers from the Welsh National Opera production, does, that “the rhythm is almost as important as the pitch”. They apparently worked for hours at a time just practising the rhythm (Opera on 3).
    3 - Poutney is the creative director at Welsh National Opera who performed this piece at various locations across the UK in 2014.

    - Batnitzky, Leora. (2001). Schoenberg's Moses Und Aron and the Judaic Ban on Images. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. 25. 73-90.

    - Goldstein, Bluma (1992) Reinscribing Moses: Heine, Kafka, Freud, and Schoenberg in a European Wilderness, London: Harvard University Press.

    - Johnson, William E. (2015) Tone Row Partitions in Schoenberg's "Moses und Aron" The Volk Partition and the Zwischenspiel Partition. Butler University Graduate Thesis Collection. 264. Available online at

    - 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

    - Perle, George (1991) Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    - Reti,Rudolph. (1958) "Tonality, Atonality, Pantonality: A Study of Some Trends in Twentieth Century Music." Rockliff, California: University of California Press.

    - Schoenberg, Arnold and Stein, Leonard (1975) Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg. New York: St. Martin's Press

    - Steiner, George (1965) 'Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron”' Encounter (June), pp.40-46.

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

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