Moses und Aron - Further information

Arnold Schönberg: Moses und Aron Arnold Schönberg: Moses und Aron Arnold Schönberg: Moses und Aron
Moses und Aron
Arnold Schönberg

World première in a concert performance on March 12, 1954, Musikhalle, Hamburg
Staged world première on June 6, 1957, Municipal Theatre, Zurich


Arnold Schönberg's monumental masterpiece, the incomplete two act torso of Moses und Aron, is the last century’s most unusual music theatre creation and will open my last Munich Opera Festival on 28th June 2006. Schönberg started to grapple with the biblical story of the brothers Moses and Aron in the 1920s during a holiday he took near the Mattsee in Austria. It was during this time that he was personally confronted by the shock of the virulent spread of anti-Semitism through German speaking society. Smarting under this traumatic personal experience the composer, already a convert to Protestantism, became absorbed in religious, philosophical and social questions of morality.

Schönberg then worked on three pieces: a drama – The Biblical Way, a cantata Moses and the Burning Bush and a chorus work You Should Not But You Must.
Through these works his vision of a great all-encompassing opus began to form step by step and was, at first, conceived as a grand oratorio. Schönberg wrote the three part text based on the Book of Exodus, the Second Book of Moses, which recounts the flight of the Israelites from Egyptian imprisonment supported by their belief in the God "Jahwe". Schönberg began composing the music of this work in 1930 and two years later had completed the first two acts. Always intending to compose the third act from the inspiration of his already completed text for it, he died before he was able to tackle the task and the work has remained a two thirds unfinished torso.

The brothers Moses and Aron personify the duality of thought and word. Moses has recognised the true God and sees it as his duty to give the Israelites a new cause and meaning for their existence but he cannot put his message across – he lacks eloquence and articulacy. For this he needs his charismatic and, indeed eloquent, brother Aron to be his spokesman or, rather, the spokesman of God's will. But Moses, in delegating the task to Aron, becomes too preoccupied with the considerations of the moral and philosophical problems of God and God's laws and retreats into a solitary world of contemplation. The people feel abandoned by this abstract thinker ensconced in his ivory tower.

The populist Aron feels compelled to give the masses what they really want: – a tangible God and he does so in the form of a golden calf. By doing this he openly breaks his covenant with Jahwe. The people’s dance around the golden calf descends into a wild orgy of sexuality, destruction and murder. Moses returns from his retreat and is confronted by the disaster and destroys the tablets of stone with God's laws inscribed upon them. The people, led by a column of fire, flee to the chosen land while Moses remains confused pondering the sentence "Oh words, words – words that I lack".

Seldom in the 400 year history of opera has a work come so close to the bone of society's religious, philosophical and political questions as Moses und Aron. This work exemplifies music drama's role as a forum for the debate concerning the values of our society and concerning the meaning of our existence on this miserable planet of ours. Schönberg authorized the world première of the completed first two acts but did not live to witness it. The first staged performance took place in 1957 in Zürich six years after the composer's death.

David Pountney, the artistic director of the Bregenz Festival, whose last new production in Munich was that of Gounod's Faust in the year 2000, will direct this new production of Schönberg's magnum opus. After his enormous success as Alwa in Lulu and, recently, as Captain Vere in the new production of Billy Budd John
will assume the role of Aron. The great Wotan of Bayreuth, London, New York, Berlin and Munich, John Tomlinson, whose Claggart in Billy Budd won such high praise, will tackle the role of Moses which presents a challenge embodying, unlike that of his brother Aron, Schönberg's concept of "Sprechgesang". The third major role of this work is that of the Israelites themselves the challenge of which, of course, will be taken up by the Bavarian State Opera Chorus under the direction of Andrés Máspero.

It is fitting that the musical leadership for this great undertaking should be in the hands of Zubin Mehta as his last project as the company's Music Director. There are few conductors alive today with such a direct link to the music of the second Viennese school as Zubin Mehta. He studied in Vienna under Hans Swarowsky who was a student of Schönberg himself and musically this challenge will be the most fitting way for our music director to say goodbye to this institution. For us both it will be hugely important to present this work at this time in this world as we both say adieu and can reflect upon the history of 350 years of opera in Munich, 350 years of opera as drama, 350 years of opera as an expression of society's thoughts about itself and 350 years of an art form that is as important to us as the air we breathe.

Sir Peter Jonas
March 2005