Moses at the Met

Michael Linton

Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 98 (December 1999): 13-16.

The twentieth century an age of religious art? It wouldn’t seem so. In the ranks of painters, sculptors, writers, and architects it is hard to think of very many (Rouault, Gaudi, Solzhenitsyn) for whom matters of faith were a significant subject for their creativity. But as this aggressively secular century closes, it’s somewhat surprising to realize that most of the period’s composers were deeply concerned with religious issues and that their greatest works were often overtly religious compositions: Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites, Bernstein’s Mass, Britten’s War Requiem, Messiaen’s St. Francis, Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion, and the list goes on. God may have been dead for the guys with brushes and pens, but either the news hadn’t reached the musicians or they discounted the reports as premature.

This centrality of religious issues to modern composers was dramatically highlighted last spring by the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Arnold Schoenberg’s rarely performed Moses und Aron. Although he did not live to hear a performance (it was first staged in Zurich in 1957, six years after his death), Schoenberg regarded the opera as his most important composition. James Levine, the Met’s artistic director, had long prodded the Met to produce it. But the difficulty of the opera, the notoriously conservative tastes of the Met’s board and audience, and a preemptive 1990 production by the New York City Opera all conspired to delay the performance. Better late than never. Levine’s tenacity was rewarded when the production not only received critical praises but strong houses and a chance to return for the 1999–2000 season.

Certainly the bravos are well deserved. It’s hard to think of an opera that requires more of its chorus, and the Met singers proved themselves to be among the most accomplished anywhere. John Tomlinson as Moses and Philip Langridge as Aaron performed their very different roles convincingly, and Levine led his orchestra through Schoenberg’s gnarled polyphony with alacrity. Yet even in these performers’ hands, the deep flaws of the opera could be neither concealed nor overcome. For despite Schoenberg’s efforts and intentions, the work is a dramatic, musical, and theological failure that testifies to the difficulties of creating religious art outside a religious community.

The problems begin with Schoenberg’s libretto, which is not so much about the beginning of the Exodus as it is a Heideggerian ramble on the nature of God. For Schoenberg, "God" is pure idea who can be experienced only internally. Act One begins at the burning bush. God instructs Moses to free the Israelites from their Egyptian masters, telling him that his brother Aaron will assist him by putting Moses’ lofty pronouncements into a vocabulary the Hebrews can understand. The people are initially suspicious, but after Aaron performs several wonders (Moses’ leprous hand is healed, his staff is changed to a serpent, Nile water runs as blood), they accept Aaron’s promise that the one God will strengthen them against Pharaoh and his many gods. Act One concludes with the Israelites pledging their allegiance to the new God.

Act Two opens in the wilderness, the Hebrews growing restless as they wait for Moses to return from meeting with God. They suspect that the new deity has killed Moses and abandoned them. They become violent, and Aaron agrees to give the mob an image of God they can comprehend. He makes the golden calf (a stuffed disemboweled ox in the Met production). The people bring it offerings and sacrifices. They become drunk, murderous, and orgiastic.

As their orgy collapses into stupor, Moses returns with the stone tables of the law. Outraged by what he sees, he commands that the idol be destroyed and calls Aaron to account. Aaron justifies himself by describing the people’s fears and telling Moses that he "heeded the voice from within" when he gave the people an image of God they could comprehend. Moses may love his pure idea of God, but Aaron claims that he loves the people. God may be timeless, but such timelessness is shown by the endurance of Israel, and Israel proves its faithfulness by its "feeling." Nothing truly encompasses the totality of God, Aaron argues, and the stone tablets no less than the golden calf are but a partial revelation—and thus a distortion—of the pure God–idea so important to Moses.

Recognizing the validity of Aaron’s point, Moses smashes the tablets in disgust. Chiding Moses, Aaron says that by making Moses’ idea comprehensible to the common man, he sustains it. A pillar of fire appears to lead the Israelites, but Moses distrusts it as yet another physical distortion of the metaphysical truth. Aaron joins the people as they begin to follow the pillar, while Moses remains rooted in despair. Aaron has perverted Moses’ pure perception of God, and the act closes with Moses crying hopelessly, "Oh word, word that I lack!"

The third act is a debate between Moses and his brother. Moses has arrested Aaron, who stands accused of encouraging false hopes (such as a notion of a "Promised Land"). Aaron contends that Moses’ idea of God would remain meaningless to the people unless presented in imagery they can understand. The two men argue, and although Moses orders his brother released, Aaron falls dead and the opera ends.

The revelation to Moses of The Name, the Passover, the stubbornness of Pharaoh, the Israelites’ liberation from the forced servitude of Pharaoh into the voluntary servitude of the Lord: none of these play any part in Schoenberg’s libretto. Moses, not the hand of God, frees the Hebrews (although God gives him the idea). Aaron convinces the Hebrews of God’s power through tricks, while Moses is a prattling professor; and the God of the Exodus—who saves His people by parting the waters of the Red Sea and feeds them with manna—Schoenberg replaces with a philosophical concept, the God of the Really Big But Hard To Understand Idea.

Schoenberg’s metaphysical Big Idea has its musical twin: serialism. He began work on the opera in 1930 (he was born in 1874) and had completed the music for the first two acts by 1932 (the third act was to remain uncomposed at his death, and is not included in the Met’s production). By this time he had thoroughly mastered the technique of "serial composition," which he had begun using roughly a decade earlier, and there is a clear logic connecting an opera about theological monotheism and a compositional technique in which all the notes of a work spring out of a single "tone row."

Similarly, there is also a clear logic in Schoenberg’s decision to differentiate the roles of Moses and Aaron so strongly. With only one exception, Moses does not sing. Instead, Schoenberg has him speak his lines on pitch (a technique called Sprechstimme) while Aaron transforms Moses’ barked speeches into fully sung arias—thus literally making Moses’ highly intellectualized lines more sensuous. And while there are some musically striking moments (the rousing Act One finale with the Hebrews’ cry of allegiance to the one God, the bone–chilling chorus whispering "Where is Moses" sotto voce before the second act), the overall effect of the music is boredom. The opening scene of Moses before the splendor of the burning bush Schoenberg manages to transform into perhaps the dullest scene in opera. Aaron’s melodies—which, to make Schoenberg’s point, should be ravishing—never seem to have any purpose and quickly become annoying. Even the orgiastic rites of the Hebrews before the golden calf are leaden.

Simply put, the opera is a dud. But why? Certainly the story is exciting (as the folks at DreamWorks demonstrated again just last year). And while Schoenberg’s music is dull, that cannot be blamed on serialism (Berg’s Wozzeck is serial, and it’s one of the most moving works in the repertory). Compositional technique is not to blame here.

The problem with Moses und Aron is that it is about Moses and Aaron. The story of the freeing of Israel isn’t about two brothers, but about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s covenant with His chosen people and the gift of the law. For that story, Schoenberg substituted his own tale, only tangentially related to the traditional account.

And there’s the rub. Great religious art tends to be a collaboration between an artist and the religious community of which he is a participating member. The faith community nurtures the artist through education, encouragement, commission, and performance; the artist in turn creates as an act of faith within that community. Certainly he creates as an individual (in the West at least), but as an individual who knows that his art grows out of a tradition and speaks back to that tradition. Josquin, Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Bruckner, Messiaen: they had deep roots as participating members of religious communities and they all viewed their compositions—and in particular their liturgical works or works on religious themes—as speaking of and to those communities. Their work was individual, even individualistic and unique, but not idiosyncratic.

But frequently this has not been the case in the twentieth century. Many faiths and confessions (and in particular evangelical Protestantism) have shown little interest in nurturing the serious artists within their folds, and many artists have reciprocated this indifference by privatizing their religion and expressing their devotion in works intended for extra–religious venues. Schoenberg’s case is illuminating. Although not raised in a religious household, from an early age the Bible became deeply important to him and he read it regularly. In 1898, the twenty–four–year–old composer converted to Christianity, and was baptized a Lutheran in Vienna. In 1933 and then living in Paris, he reconverted to Judaism. Although preoccupied with spiritual themes, in the thirty–five years he was a Christian Schoenberg received no commissions from ecclesiastical establishments, nor is there any evidence that church leaders took any interest in his art. The Jewish community was only slightly more supportive (in 1938 a Los Angeles rabbi did commission the composer to set the "Kol Nidre").

Both as a Christian and as a Jew, Schoenberg’s spiritual life was solitary. There is no record of Schoenberg as a Christian ever receiving communion or attending any church; as a Jew (either as a child or an adult) Schoenberg didn’t attended synagogue, never learned Hebrew, and made no attempt to keep a kosher home. And while Schoenberg’s refusal to participate in the liturgical and communal life of either faith might tempt us to characterize his religious decisions as dilettantish, it would be grossly unfair to do so. Unlike Mahler, who cynically converted to Catholicism in order to gain the directorship of the Vienna State Opera (he called his baptism no more important than "changing coats"), Schoenberg became a Protestant, far less fashionable in imperial Austria–Hungary. And when he returned to Judaism in 1933, he did so in the face of Hitler’s rise to power and the legalization of Nazi anti–Semitism. Neither act is that of a man for whom religious matters are things of either convention or convenience. Both of Schoenberg’s conversions were acts of courage caused by deeply considered spiritual decisions.

Serious though his decisions were, Schoenberg’s isolation from the communal life of faith communities resulted in a personal religion that became ultimately nonsensical because it was so idiosyncratic. A concoction of Bible stories, traditionalisms, romantic philosophy, Jewish nationalism, numerology, and superstition, Moses und Aron was Schoenberg’s ultimate act of artistic and religious self–expression. (Even the name is a mix of German and English spellings; Schoenberg cobbled them together for kabbalistic purposes.)

But self–expression is not necessarily communication, and one’s spirituality is not a shared faith. It’s difficult to see how Moses und Aron could move either a practicing Jew for whom the Passover event and its remembrance is the center of his identity or a Christian for whom God’s deliverance of Israel is the template of his faith. To such people, Schoenberg’s god of pure idea and number symbolism must seem only distantly familiar and ultimately trivial. What is such a deity when compared with either the Lord who sent Pharaoh to the bottom of the sea or the God who raised Jesus from the dead?

This is the ultimate failure of Schoenberg’s opera. There are good and bad passages in the music, and there are dull and interesting passages in the drama, but as a religious work it is consistently banal. In this way, it is not unlike Bernstein’s Mass and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, both works by artists deeply concerned with spiritual issues but espousing only privatized faiths. And while both works have their enthusiasts (indeed, the Stravinsky is considered one of the century’s greatest works), neither rise to the level of Bach or even Duruflé. Like Schoenberg, both composers were generally nonpracticing members of their religions (Bernstein a Jew and Stravinsky Russian Orthodox), and developed instead their own brands of spirituality. And while both works are aesthetically more successful than Schoenberg’s opera, to the religious communities that these works might address, they are equally mute.

Schoenberg did not mean to be mute. He hoped for a day when chamber maids would hum his melodies as they did Puccini’s. And he deeply wished for his art to testify to spiritual ends. At the end of his life he did accomplish this goal at least once. Deeply moved by the story of the Warsaw ghetto, in two weeks of August in 1947 Schoenberg wrote a ninety–nine bar melodrama for narrator, male chorus, and orchestra. The work culminates in a shattering presentation by the male chorus of the Sh’ma Yisroel as the Jews are lead to their death. Here, by abandoning his own metaphysical concoctions (but not his signature twelve–tone composition technique) and focusing instead upon that which has united Jews in their faith and destiny for millennia, Schoenberg moved beyond aesthetics to a truly religious art. At its premiere in 1948, the audience was stunned into silence. The work remains among the most deeply moving—and transforming—seven minutes in all music.

Sadly, this is not the case with Moses und Aron. It is a kind of noble ruin, its flashes of grandeur testifying to what might have been. But the opera’s failure is not all Schoenberg’s. It is also the failure of those twentieth–century faith communities who were at best indifferent to his presence with them. In the face of such indifference, and sometimes outright hostility, perhaps it is inevitable that an artist’s speech stutters, malnourished, the artistic/religious eloquence of previous generations beyond his reach. Yet what is surprising, and perhaps even miraculous, is that in spite of this so many twentieth–century composers chose—and continue to choose—to speak religiously at all, mumbled speech though it be. The painters, architects, and writers stopped even trying long ago.

Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.