• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Wednesday, March 28, 2018

    Moses und Aron (1973): Schönberg's Portrayal

    This is part 4 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 1968 performance in Düsseldorf.
    As I demonstrated in my previous post on this subject, Schönberg uses a variety of musical techniques to portray the leading characters in his opera in various different ways: he uses sprechstimme to emphsise Moses' difficulty with speech; he uses the perfection and inclusivity of twelve-tone serialism to display the perfection of God; and, he has Aron distort the God's initial tone row to highlight the compromises and distortions that Aron makes in order to enable the people to comprehend the God that is reaching out to them.

    I want to expand these observations now to look at Schönberg's portrayal of the four key 'characters' in the opera.

    Moses - The Inflexible Idealist
    In contrast to most dramatisations of the life of Moses, Schönberg's opera truncates almost his entire backstory. There is no account of his birth, his parents, his sister Miriam, or his upbringing in the Egyptian court. There is a brief mention in act I scene 3 of his murdering the Egyptian guard and fleeing, but no mention of his subsequent meeting with Jethro, or his marriage to Zipporah. Schönberg, then, has little interest in Moses' biography, only in his theology and his present beliefs.

    As with the majority of artistic portrayals, Schönberg seeks to depict Moses as a character of particular significance and prominence. As Sir John Tomlinson puts it "Moses is an exceptional character...he’s not normal" (Opera on 3). It is he alone who hears God speak. Yet whilst this is a special privilege, it also carries a significant burden. Moses has a unique insight into the nature of God, but he struggles to percive how he can communicate it, not least because he is a man who can only speak in a world where everybody sings.

    Initially, Moses is optimistic and seems to believe he will be able to explain to others the insight he has gained. However, his experiences with Aron and then the people lead him to realise that his task is a difficult one.

    Paramount in Moses' understanding is his determination that images are at best an inadequate way of communicating the nature of God and, at worst, dangerously heretical. "For this Moses...the second commandment, which prohibits images of God, is not merely a fundamental condition of Jewish monotheism and a meaningful life, it is virtually the only condition". (Goldstein 163).

    Moses strongly maintains this position in the face of mounting opposition. Whilst Aron initially seems willing to try and understand, a combination of his failure to fully grasp Moses' ideal and his natural pragmatic streak lead him to reject his brother's position. The people show even less inclination to adopt Moses' imageless faith than Aron, indeed seemingly the biggest reason Aron seeks to amend Moses' message is to fashion it into a form which will be both comprehensible and acceptable to the people.

    However evidence begins to emerge that Moses' position is even more extreme than God's. Towards the end of act I, and in the face of Moses' refusal to compromise, Aron performs of the two biblical miracles, the transformation of Moses' staff into a snake and the leprous hand. But these two signs appear to be acts of God, miracles performed to communicate to the people. It seems that God has more belief in the validity of imagery than his most faithful servant.

    As the second act begins, the extent of this problem becomes clearer. Ultimately "Moses' conviction that God cannot be represented and that truth, and not beauty, must be maintained, makes him an ineffective leader. " (Batnitzky 2001: 12). He is unable to lead the people, because he lacks their support. When he leaves them to spend time with God they rebel against and seek not a image from God such as the signs, but a human-made image of God.

    By the time Moses finally appears in Act II, the people have delved into a full blown paganistic orgy. Indignant at what he sees and emboldened by his time with his god he orders the golden calf "Vergeh" ("Begone") and it disappears. He then scolds Aron, the two argue over the way they have each sought to lead the people. When Aron tells Moses he is too closely bound to his ideas ("Du bist an deinen Gedanken gebunden!"), Moses argues that the two tablets bearing the Ten Commandments which express this same idea. When Aron retorts "die auch nur ein Bild" ("They are also images") Moses smashes the two tablets. In contrast to the biblical account where Moses does this in anger, here it is to express the intensity of his belief and the extremes he will go to in order to follow them. But yet again God seems to undermine Moses' strict idealism. As with the end of act I, where Moses' staff became a snake, here God sends the pillars of fire and cloud. Whilst Moses initially expresses it as a "Götzenbilder!" ("Godless image!") he quickly realises that he too has fashioned a false image "So habe ich mir ein Bild gemacht, falsch". The libretto's final words in Act II are a stage direction "Moses sinkt verzweifelt zu Boden." ("Moses sinks to the ground in despair").

    Whilst many productions of the opera end it at this point, thus leaving their audience with the sympathetic impression of a great man overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge he faces, Schönberg clearly intended something different as indicated by his work on the unfinished third act. Whereas Act II ends with a Moses who "seems less angry with what has happened than despairing" (Cooke, Opera on 3) when we rejoin the action at the start of Act III he appears a far more strident and determined figure. He conducts a token trial of Aron before condemning him and whilst Aron is ultimately released, the events leading up to this announcement have been so horrific that he falls down dead.

    The unfinished nature of the third act is interesting because it raises further questions as to whether Moses is meant to be the hero or the villain. Are we to meant to aspire to be like him, or to be different from him? If the opera ended at the end of Act II then whilst Moses' inflexible idealism has not persuaded his people, or even his brother, to follow him, he has stuck steadfastly to his beliefs. Was he right to do so? However, if the opera ends at the end of Act III, then Moses has ultimately become something of a monster, a man who abuses his brother to the point of death over an issue of theology.

    In Schöenberg's own life there are two important parallels to consider. The first is the rise, and then fall, of Hitler and the Nazis and anti-Semitism inherent in their ideology. But, again, there are two opposing interpretations. Is Moses the Jewish hero standing up against the appropriation of images in the face of sizeable opposition as Goldstein suggests (165)? Or is he, by the end of Act III at least, a dangerous idealist who ousts his brother to become a somewhat brutal dictator?

    The other parallel is Schöenberg involvement with a movement to unite the Jewish people in their own state, not only for their own safety, but also in order to preserve the idea of the unrepresentable God. Indeed, according to Goldstein, Schönberg "was willing and ready to assume the leadership" of this movement in particular because of "his hardheadedness, his obduracy", his inflexibility and devotion to the idea" the very traits he bequeathed to Moses (Goldstein 166). Schönberg seemingly creates Moses into the kind of person he perceived himself to be. It is possible Schönberg saw himself as a kind of Moses figure. Certainly he was "(i)nspired by the biblical figure of Moses" both in the pioneering nature of his music and his politics (Feisst 83)

    Perhaps, it is because of these questions and seeming contradictions that Schönberg found it impossible to finish the work. Whilst he identified with his image of Moses, he was also wary of the dangers of an unblinking devotion to an idealistic cause.

    The title - "Moses und Aron" - reflects the dispute at the heart of the work. It's two eponymous leads personify the different sides of the debate over the question of whether an incomprehensible God can be, or indeed ought to be, represented using imagery. Thus Aron is presented as a counterfoil to his brother. If Moses is the inflexible idealist, Aaron is the pliable pragmatist, always seeking to find a compromise in order to ensure the people as a whole move forward together. "While for Moses God is and remains invisible and ineffable, an idea that cannot be represented (‘Unrepresentable God!/Unspeakable, ambiguous idea!’ [194]), Aaron, occupied with formulating expressive means sure to please, insists on the efficacy of constructing familiar and attractive images of the deity" (Goldstein 156). Whereas Moses fixates more on the abstract, Aaron "seeks a representation of God tailored to the people’s needs and to the religious and social conventions known to them" (Goldstein 156).

    Another way to look at the dispute between the two men is to see it as competing understandings of freedom. For Goldstein, Aron is hunting for freedom from "the oppression of slavery", whereas his brother sees it more as "freedom from what is transitory" (156). Moses adheres adamantly to this second view of freedom; Aaron almost exclusively to a "freedom from physical bondage".

    However, the reasons behind Aron's compromising approach are less clear. Is his pragmatism merely his desire for love, popularity or power; or rooted in a passionate love of the people, and a belief in unity, which rivals Moses' passionate defense of God's pure and unrepresentable nature; or even a combination of both?

    On the one hand, it's notable, for example that when Moses first meets his brother after his encounter with God, Aron asks him - before Moses can even speak - if he is sent by mighty God ("schickt dich mir der große Gott?") and he also uses the word "Allmächtige" ("Almighty") before Moses can offer any kind of description.

    Yet on the other hand Aron seems to have a genuine feeling for the the people that Moses cannot match. In the climatic fifth scene of Act II Aron declares "Ich liebe diese Volk, ich liebe für es und wikk es efhakten!" ("I love this humble folk, I live for them and want to satisfy them"). Moses counters not with is own declaration of love for the people, but for his love for his idea. When Aron suggests his brother would love the people if only he spent time with them, Moses insists that "Es muß den Gednaken er fassen!" ("They must comprehend the idea!").

    By this stage what had started off as a failure to understand Moses' key message has turned sour. Whilst Moses convened with God, Aron strengthened his bond with the people. When Moses loses the argument over symbolism, he goes away broken, but returns to wrestle power back from his brother in the final act. For Wörner, Aron's distortion of Moses' message has a negative psychological effect on Aron. "The recognition of the pure idea by human imagination signifies a diminution, a darkening; and this diminution eventually turns into denial and betrayal (Wörner 67)." But it affects Moses for the worse as well making him inflexible and unwilling to declare a love for the people even if he disagrees with them.

    Judging by the music, however, the suggestion seems to be that Schönberg sides with Moses more than his brother. When Aron sings, he distorts God's original tone row. "In all other contexts, Aaron’s musical characterisation is that of a sorcerer, an artist of transmutation, a seducer and demon, equivocal, restless, carrying good and evil within himself, but affecting evil, destruction." (Wörner 84).

    At the heart of the dispute between the two leads is Moses' vision of God. Indeed the opera's opening words are Moses describing God as "Einziger, ewiger, allgegenwärtiger, unsichtbarer und unvorstellbarer Gott!" ("Unique, eternal, omnipresent one, invisible and inconceivable God!"). Quite a list of adjectives. God's response is to assert the holiness that surrounds him by ordering Moses to remove his shoes. Moses then calls God the God of his fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but tries to turn down the opportunity to be God's prophet ("verkünde"). God then talks about the enslavement of Moses' people and tells him "du mußt dein Volk daraus befrein!" ("You must free your people/folk").

    What Moses takes away from this encounter in scene one we discover as he speaks to Aron in scene two and the people in scene four. In his initial conversation with Aron he describes God as "der Allgegenwärtige nicht Raum" ("The Almighty that exists outside of men") and as both "Unsichtbaren" ("invisible/unseen") and "Unvorstellbaren" ("unimageable"). Both of these terms become crucial in the discussion about God's nature the former being used nine times and the later eleven. Furthermore, as Batnitzky observes, "both Moses and Aron refer to God as unvorstellbar" going on to note the word's "connotations of unrepresentable, unimaginable, and ultimately inconceivable" (2001: 11-12).

    These two terms along with "Einzige" ("unique/only one", used eleven times) and "ewige" ("eternal/everlasting", used thirteen times) form the key part of the work's understanding of God as "an ineffable deity" to the extent that he may indeed be "unrepresentable" (Goldstein 152). If Moses' is correct, then, as Tomlinson puts it, the "true idea of God is so pure that it is inexpressible” (Opera on 3).

    The ideas flowing from this idea of God as unrepresentable are present in some of Schönberg's other religious works. As Steiner explains "Moses and Aaron is thematically and psychologically related to an entire set of works in which Schoenberg sought to express his highly individual, though at the same time profoundly Judaic concept of identity, of the act of spiritual creation, and of the dialogue— so inherent in music— between the song of man and the silences of God" (41). At the same time the ideas about God he is exploring also flow from many other Jewish thinkers, and say something about the Jewish people as a whole. “Like Graetz, Cohen, and Schoenberg, Freud maintains that a self-imposed, Jewish resistance to visuality marks Judaism as a rationally and morally advanced civilization” (Batnitzky 2004: 8).

    Yet despite the opera's overall emphasis on God's unique, eternal, unrepresentable and unchangeable nature, it also offers several indications from a different perspective. In particular, for all Moses' insistence that God does not communicate through symbol, or perhaps even at all, we find four incidents when God does indeed appear to intervene and communicate something of himself: when the staff turns into a snake at the end of Act I; when the golden calf vanishes ("vergeht") at the end of act II scene 4; through the pillars of fire and cloud in the following scene; and the water flowing from the rock which is discussed in Act III.

    Of course other explanations can always be found for such phenomena, but there's little in the libretto to give oxygen to such theories, not least because Schönberg so pointedly draws attention to the disappearance of the golden calf, which is, in any case, his own invention. There are two further considerations within the final act. The first is the suddenness of Aron's death. Whilst most commentators have inferred this was due to fear or stress arising from his confrontation with Moses, the possibility that this is God's final judgement on the dispute between the two protagonists. Secondly, Moses also appears to have finally softened slightly his previously hard-line stance on the prohibition of images.

    The People
    One of the relatively unusual things that Schönberg does with "Moses und Aron" is the way he makes the chorus almost into a principle character. As a group they regular speak as one voice and in dialogue with Aron and, to a lesser extent, Moses. The reasons for this seems to be Schönberg's desire to engage a modern Jewish audience in a debate about their shared future.

    In particular, it is noticeable how in the very first scene, God addresses the future of his people in a way that goes beyond the text of Exodus 3-4.
    "Und ihr werdet gesegnet sein.
    Denn das gelobe ich dir:
    Dieses Volk ist auserwählt,
    vor allen Völkern,
    das Volk des einzigen Gottes zu sein,
    daß es ihr erkenne
    und sich ihm allein ganz widme;
    daß es at Prüfungen bestehe,
    denen - in Jahrtausenden
    der Gedanke ausgesetzt ist.
    Und das verheiße ich dir:
    Ich will euch dorthin führen,
    wo ihr mit dem Ewigen einig
    und allen Völkern ein Vorbild werdet.

    "And your people will now be blessed.
    Because I promise you:
    Your people are the chosen people
    before all the others,
    They are the people of the only God.
    They are thus to know him
    and give worship to him alone.
    Also they will undergo all trials
    that over millennia
    can ever be conceived.
    And this I promise you:
    I shall take you forward
    to where united with the infinite eternal one
    you will be a model for all people."
    Given that Schönberg was writing during the rise of Nazi Germany and was spurred on by personal encounters with anti-Semitism, it's not hard to see what was at the forefront of his mind when he wrote about undergoing all the trials that could be conceived over the millennia. Moses' final words to the people are also significant, outlining the way the people will be repeatedly thrown back to the "Wüste" ("wasteland/desert") before ultimately concluding that "Aber in der Wüste seid ihr unüberwindlich und werdet das Ziel erreichen: Vereinigt mit Gott." ("But in the wasteland you shall be insurmountable and shall acheive the goal: unity with God.")

    That said, the opera does paint the people in a very poor light. Whilst the people are initially excited by the prospect of Moses liberating them from Pharaoh, they quickly leap to calling for "Blutopfer" ("blood offerings"). Neither Moses, nor Aron, believe them capable of conceiving of God as they do, and once Moses is out of the way they quickly end up holding an orgy, murdering dissidents and sacrificing young women.

    It is difficult, then, to extract what Schönberg wants to say to his own people from what he felt was necessary from a dramatic point of view, not to mention his interpretation of the biblical material. Feisst suggests that "he perceived himself as an outsider from the Jewish community, despite his desire to become accepted by this group" (84). It is, therefore, crucial to remember then that this forms part of a discussion within Judaism and also that the chorus also represent humanity in general.

    Indeed one of the things Schönberg seems to be suggesting is that without order chaos ensues. This not only the expressed in the film's narrative arc, but also in the order inherent in Schönberg's use of  twelve-tone serialism. It is perhaps also Schönberg's vision of the chaos that was sweeping Europe and the threat it posed to his people. "(S)eeking the way out of a deadly wilderness. He made his way out of Europe, but could not bring his people with him" (Goldstein 167).

    As discussed above, Schönberg came to the conclusion that the only solution was for an independent Jewish state (Stuckenschmidt 541-542). These beliefs can be traced back to before his 1927 play "Der biblische Weg" which reflected "Herzl's idea of a provisional Jewish state outside Palestine" (Feisst 86). Schönberg did not find the majority of his people responsive to his ideas, which is no doubt reflected in the way the chorus in "Moses und Aron" fail to join Moses' cause. Just as Schönberg felt estranged from his people even as he longed for their acceptance, so the Moses of the opera find that his "God and divine mission bind him to a people from whom he could only be estranged since his idea of God precludes any means for communicating that idea" (Goldstein 160).

    It's is noticeable, too, that when the people do finally rally, it occurs between the second and third acts such that is unclear quite what he has done to turn the tide. The gap leaves room for speculation - some may even be well founded - but the lack of a clear answer reflects Schönberg's failure to find a way of convincing his people to follow him, at least until it was too late.

    It is precisely because of the size of the issues raised by "Moses und Aron" that Steiner argues that the opera, both in terms of medium and message,
    "belongs to that very small group of operas which embody so radical and comprehensive an act of imagination, of dramatic and philosophic argument articulated by poetic and musical means, that there are aspects of it which go well beyond the normal analysis of an operatic score. It belongs not only to the history of modern music— in a critical way, as it exemplifies the application of Schoenberg's principles on a large, partly conventional scale— but to the history of the modern theater, of modern theology, of the relationship between Judaism and the European crisis." (40)
    The work which, in some ways, is based largely on just two men, explores its theme, speculates about the nature of its god, and expands its vision, not just to cover the nation in Moses' day, but also all of their descendants and, to some extent, the whole world.

    - 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.

    Feisst, Sabine (2011) Schoenberg's New World: The American Years. New York: Oxford University Press

    - 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

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

    - Stuckenschmidt, Hans Heinz (1977) Schoenberg: His Life, World, and Work. Trans. Humphrey Searle. New York: Schirmer.

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

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