Moses und Aron
Festival Première on 28th June 2006 at the Nationaltheater
David Pountney, Moses und Aron
The mysterious life of each art work is a part of its miracle: the way it bends, adjusts and acquires new meanings over the course of time paradoxically attests to its fundamental truth. In only a few years, Moses and Aron has become an amazing example of this. For Schönberg, the subject matter rested on a clear political and spiritual basis: the rediscovery of his Jewish roots in view of the growing anti-Jewish propaganda he had experienced first-hand in 1921 with the shameful and humiliating demand by the community of Mattsee for him to leave town, followed by the open threat not only to his own person but also to the entire liberal tradition of the European enlightenment by the neo-heathen barbarity of Nazism.
Today, however, the social and political climate has undergone quite a change, and the threat to the most precious foundations of our European culture comes from a totally different direction. Some twenty years ago, a bearded savage in the desert insisting that laws be anchored in the precepts of some religious belief would at best have evoked patronizing forbearance if not being laughed out of existence. Only on the outskirts of Europe, where a Rev. Ian Paisley gave ranting sermons, and sinister gangs concealed their criminality beneath religious and nationalistic pretexts, could religion, or rather the abuse of religion gain the appearance of a kind of threat to peace.
Over the course of the past decades, the dogmatic assertion of fundamentalist religious views has indeed taken on a seriously menacing aspect. Through the justification of terror and the stealthy promotion of insecurity, it undermines the basis of freedom and tolerance for which Europe so bitterly fought in the mid-twentieth century. Even the most tolerant European nations such as the Netherlands and Denmark have been forced to acknowledge that their tolerance has effectively sanctioned the importation of intolerance. A vicious circle has begun, one which is on the point of extinguishing the heart of the enlightenment tradition, our most precious heritage We can no longer deal with religions fundamentalism, whether in the desert of the Near East or in the Bible belt of the United States with a patronizing smile. Moses, once the embodiment of the redeemer has become the embodiment of the threat.
Whether the Moses of the Bible or Jewish religious tradition was a dogmatic fundamentalist is beside the point; the fact that the Moses in Schönberg’s opera is one is unquestionable. We should fear him and reject his message with all the intellectual means at our command because it is not possible for any individual, regardless of how much of a visionary he might be, to make the decision for others as to the nature of God or how we have to worship or depict Him. In our liberal culture, the freedom to conceive of the divine as we see fit is a fundamental liberty of every individual human being, one that can be denied or restricted by no-one.
The strongest antithesis to Moses’s argumentation in the opera is the adoration of the calf of gold. As this event has been passed along to us in the Bible, it comes as no surprise that the worship of the golden calf is resolutely shown in a bad light, and Schönberg follows suit in a few magnificent yet incredible stage directions, which, among other things, call for the slaughtering of vast numbers of animals and virgins as well as mass sex. Since we, however, are not involved in this attempt to prove the correctness of Moses’s viewpoint by using propaganda to malign his opponents – in any case a rather pathetic stratagem in a debate over something as mysterious as religion – this “orgy” must and should not perforce be a totally negative event. The claim that freedom in the choice of religion automatically leads to perversion and criminality appears totally preposterous to me. Anarchy also has an enormously liberating power, and the free expression of individual creativity can be joyful, beautiful and fruitful. As the priest in the first act so correctly remarks, the offer for us to select our own gods, opens up an abundance of options as well as protection from the terribly ominous peril inherent in every dogma – namely, that it could be wrong. Playing it safe is just as useful in religion as it is in betting at the race track. A nation guided by dogma can end in disaster if this dogma proves to be wrong; an abundance of ideas, on the other hand, offer everyone an escape hatch from unavoidable human fallibility. But anarchy and freedom also harbor dangers, and total freedom of decision can – as in that greatest of capitalistic miracles, the Internet – also open up paths to decisions that are violent, criminal or perverse. A sincere evocation of anarchy would be incomplete without the acceptance of its possible downsides.
Moses destroys this outburst of freedom of expression with a commanding gesture. His fundamentalist character remains unaltered right to the final scene of the second act, and only the unfinished ending causes confusion. At the end of the second act, Schönberg created a downfall for Moses when he remains behind bewailing his disability while Aron leads the people into the Promised Land. Aron has won the confrontation with Moses by demonstrating that even Moses’s destruction of the golden calf and the tablets of the law were only images – forbidden graven images, in other words, in the context of Moses’s preaching. The broken and shattered figure of Moses at the end of the second act offers us an image familiar from literature: the mighty ruler in despair, the noble, tragic figure overwhelmed by the burden of his task.
This image, however, was never envisioned as Moses’s final scene and with its considerate and sentimental pathos it even portrays a total falsification of the work and the Moses character created by Schönberg. His intentions emerge clearly from the uncomposed libretto of the final act, although of course we can never know what changes might have come about while the composer was setting the words to music. Here Moses is, very significantly, surrounded by soldiers. Aron is under arrest. After an inconclusive resumption of their confrontation at the end of the second act, the soldiers ask if they should kill Aron. “Set him free,” Moses replies, “and if he can, then let him live” – and Aron accordingly falls over, although he, were he like every operatic tenor allowed to keep right on singing right up to his final breath, certainly would have pointed out that this death of his (similar to the death of Hunding after Wotan’s equally fatal and autocratic “Geh!”) is also one of Moses’s involuntary images. On top of this, Moses demands that the people pay even more rigorous devotion to his ideas from here on: they are to forget the Promised Land, which was only an image anyway, and remain in the “complacency of the desert”. Moses’s downfall at the end of the second act served the sole purpose of allowing Moses to emerge strengthened at the end of the third. Here he reveals himself to be ruthlessly and triumphantly prepared to sacrifice his brother for the purity of his thought; and whether his “death” had been brought about through the hand of God or not, it remains an unjust and despicable method of winning an ideological altercation. This Moses makes a far less appealing impression, and, in a modern context, a highly menacing one in the bargain.
The degree to which Schönberg identified with the character of his Moses, makes it inconceivable that Schönberg would have wanted to end the opera with the image of a broken and conquered man. Moses’s insistence on the purity, clarity and uncompromising integrity of his religious idea corresponds with Schönberg’s own visionary conviction in his musical idea. In 1921 he wrote to his pupil Josef Rufer: “I have made a discovery that secures the predominance of German music for the next hundred years” – the way in which a future victim unintentionally used the language of his oppressors here is downright horrifying. This millenial vision was also subjected to a reassessment by historical revisionism. In the operatic field, for example, the only work we can designate as a twelve-tone masterwork is Lulu, even if it is less successful than its (non-dodecaphonic) predecessor Wozzeck. Apart from Moses itself, there is a small masterwork by Dallapiccola, Il prigioniero; a somewhat underrated work by Køenek, Karl V, and at least two successful works by Berio, Il re in ascolto and La vera storia. But this surprisingly short list actually ends with an earlier work, namely Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten. Although the twelve-tone technique also continued to exert a massive influence on post-war music, Die Soldaten contains signs of its own exhaustion, which inevitably came about through the fatal collapse of the striving for complexity for its own sake and left behind that mighty work as a testimony to the Titanic triumph of effort over achievement. The preponderant majority of masterworks in the operatic sector in the 20th century came from other directions: Janáèek, Shostakovich, Britten and Stravinsky stayed away from the “complacency of the desert”, be it by historical coincidence or by their own decision.
Moses’s fundamentalism is additionally underscored by his express separation from Aron, In Schönberg’s earlier polemic drama, Der biblische Weg (The Biblical Way) Moses and Aron were still joined together in one character: Max Aruns. Separated from one another, they remain nevertheless more than just brothers, and it is perhaps fairer to Moses to view Aron’s end more as the psychological suppression of an unwanted character trait than as a brutal fratricide. In any case the internal debate between two aspects of a human being engenders equally powerful resonance in the world of politics and art as it does in the world of religion. The relationship between ideology and “spin”, in other words its communicator in modern jargon, has become a dominant theme in political discourse, while the contrast between the creative idealist and the artist who seeks communication and sales opportunities for his work, was a factor with which Schönberg was painfully familiar. One of the most convincing pragmatic reasons for his inability to complete Moses und Aron was his unrelenting struggle to earn a living.
“Max Aruns” was partially a portrait of the Zionist Theodor Herzl, although the “Zionistic” element in the opera libretto is almost exclusively projected on Aron as the “political” figure. When Aron says: “I love my people and live for them”, Moses counters this with: “I love my idea and live for it.” This introduces a further concept, which so often turns history topsy-turvy: National Socialism. Whether or not National Socialism is accepted depends fundamentally on who happens to be in power. When a suppressed minority or an occupied country develops National Socialism, they have our full sympathy. As soon as a country achieves its political freedom, however, and begins conducting its National Socialism from the more favorable position of an established state, we feel unwell. In the melting pot of Hapsburg Vienna, even the Germans managed to see themselves as the cultural underdogs. This evoked a vitriolic, demagogical political reaction, which was, to a great extent, malignantly anti-Semitic. The charismatic leaders of these anti-liberal movements drew their inspiration from the same intoxicating brew of ideas and spoke the same kind of exaggerated, demagogically fluent language we find in Aron’s speeches. Moses seems rather to have distanced himself from the concept of the “chosen people”. And despite Schönberg’s own personal and passionate commitment to the salvation of the Jewish people starting in 1923, he did not succeed in giving this idea the electrifying musical identity that would have been perceived as suitable. When the chorus at the end of the first act has finally determined to follow Moses/Aron, then the music remains hesitant, almost awestruck rather than joyful – over accepting the responsibility that goes with being “chosen” The little march that ends acts one and two is a rather bitter affair, far distant from a rollicking journey to the Promised Land. Perhaps the times themselves were too bitter for optimism, or perhaps the road was more inspiring than the destination. Can the established state embody the same idealistic passion as a downtrodden nation in exile? Isn’t the sight of a State of Israel withdrawing behind a wall one of destructive irony for European eyes? Does the tearing down of one wall automatically mean the erection of another? Safety is a thoroughly magical motivation, but we in Europe should learn as quickly as possible that waiving liberty for the sake of security can never be an answer to the threat of fundamentalism.
Schönberg’s opera like his life is permeated by huge ironic contradictions. Schönberg was a passionate advocate of the German musical tradition. In this sense, he embodied the profound cultural integration of Jews and Germans. When this integration was destroyed by that particular form of hatred people once thought was reserved for family conflicts, his commitment to the German musical tradition helped him just as little as an Iron Cross awarded for valor in World War I helped other Jews. This fratricidal hatred is reflected in the conflict between Judaism and Islam, both of them monotheistic religions with their roots in the desert; in the final analysis all the Arabs are also Semites – “sons of Shem”. Ultimately, and most obviously: Schönberg/Moses, the visionary versus Schönberg/Aron, the activist. Moses can only remain the victor through the death of his “brother”.
When all is said and done, despite its rank as a great work of art, however, the opera Moses and Aron presents a false political and ideological antithesis in the modern context. The alternative to dogmatic, monotheistic belief is not anarchy and perversion. The fact is, neither of the two poles is commensurate with European culture. This rests first and foremost on freedom: freedom of thought, speech and belief, which demands a constant and delicate balance between authority and anarchy. This freedom was once most certainly worth fighting for, and it is most definitely also worth continuing to protect with eternal and unswerving vigilance in the future.
© Bavarian State Opera
English translation by Donald Arthur