4.16. Arnold Schoenberg, opera ‘Moses und Aron’ (1932)

In the opera Moses und Aron, *Schoenberg spelled Aaron with one “a” to avoid a title of 13 characters set to his own libretto, the composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) entered into a dialogue with the book of Exodus. Though the composer had a deep respect for the Bible, he drastically changed the story from Exodus. The central problem in his opera is the faith in the invisible God and the prohibition of images as an attempt to get a grip on Him. The different interpretations of this prohibition by Moses and Aron lead to a fatal conflict and the antagonism between the brothers is given a musical expression in the opera: the strict, faithful, but verbally ungifted Moses, “slow of speech and slow of tongue,” *Exod. 4:10 speaks (at prescribed pitches), whereas his brother and “mouth” Aron sings, as a heroic tenor.

The shofar—or, more precisely, the allusion to a shofar—appears in Act II, Scene 4. At the beginning of Act II, Moses is on Mount Sinai, where God reveals the Law to him. During his long absence, the people begin to doubt; they rise in revolt, threaten the seventy elders and demand the return of the old gods. Though their leader Aron feels driven into a corner, he understands them and meets their wishes by taking gold and making a calf. This image is a violation of the second commandment in Exod. 20:4: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.” The long and spectacular Scene 3 of Moses und Aron pictures the frenzied and murderous orgy around the golden calf.

The chronotope of Scene 4, Mount Sinai, is the same as in Exod. 32, but the plot of the story differs. In Exod. 32:15-20, Moses descends from the mountain bearing the two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments; as Joshua and he come closer, they see the people singing and dancing around the golden calf; Moses flies into a rage, shatters the stone tablets and burns the golden calf. In Scene 4 of the opera, Joshua does not appear, the people speak instead of sing and the orgy around the golden calf has died away. Unlike the biblical story, the opera focuses on the violation of the prohibition of images and not on idolatry. Furthermore, Moses does not smash the golden calf, as in Exod. 32:20, nor does he mix it with water, forcing the people to drink it; instead, the calf simply disappears.

Scene 4, which consists of only 17 measures (976-983) with a total duration of one minute and a half, begins with the warning cry of a man from the people: “Moses is descending from the mountain!” At this moment in m. 975, the fragmentary music suddenly becomes coherent, like scattered iron particles under the influence of a magnet. The people wake up and come closer. After powerful timpani strokes, the horns blow a motif which does not include the pitches and rhythms of the traditional shofar blast, but instead, alludes to God’s great shofar in Exod. 19:16-18, which announced the giving of the Ten Commandments with the prohibition of images:

Ex 4. Arnold Schoenberg, Moses und Aron, Act II, Scene 4, mm. 976-979, French horns (real pitch). Reproduced by permission of Schott Music, Mainz, Germany.

Because one single brass instrument would not be sufficient to express the authority of the blast, four horns blow in unison, in m. 977 supported by the altos and cellos. The shofar motif derives its extraordinary power from three elements: the fortissimo dynamics, the great leaps and the contrast with a simultaneously played version of the same motif in other instruments. In various forms, this motif A♭-B♭-A-B in mm. 977-8 already played a role in the dance around the golden calf in Scene 3; here, however, it sounds pianissimo and is so overwhelmed by the shofar motif, that the golden calf in m. 982 is almost literally blown off the stage. In m. 980 Moses shouts, “Vergeh, du Abbild des Unvermögens, das Grenzenlose in ein Bild zu fassen!” (“Be gone, you image of pow’rlessness to enclose the boundless in an image finite!”) While the golden calf disappears without a trace, the people take to their heels, shouting and singing in a five-part chorus: “The golden rays are now quenched!” “Once again our god can not be seen;” “All is once more gloom and darkness!” “Ev’ry joy, ev’ry pleasure, ev’ry promise is gone!” and “We must now escape from His might!” And with this desolate chorus, Scene 4 comes to an end.

In his comment on the single shofar blast at the end of the Yom Kippur service, Jonathan Sacks mentions a tradition which connects a shofar blast to Moses’ descent from the mountain, albeit not as a symbol of wrath, but as a symbol of forgiveness: “The most expansive explanation [of the shofar blast of Yom Kippur] is that it recalls the end of Moses’ forty-day sojourn on Mount Sinai when he secured forgiveness for the people. The shofar was sounded at the beginning of his ascent and at the end when he came down the mountain holding the second set of tablets, the symbol of a new beginning.” *The Koren Yom Kippur Maḥzor 1198, 1201. According to Hai Gaon (939-1038), the shofar blast recalls the blast of the Jubilee Year with the emancipation of all Hebrew servants. Cf. The Complete ArtScroll Machzor Yom Kippur 765, Note.

As internally persuasive discourse, the shofar motif of mm. 976-979 may well represent half Moses’ voice and half God’s voice; half Moses’ indignation and half God’s warning from Deut. 4:16-17 “not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman, the form of any beast on earth.” Apart from its dynamics and rising melodic curve, the shofar motif does not have any similarities with the traditional liturgical blasts; Schoenberg subjects the shofar to stylization and fully incorporates it into the dodecaphonic style of Moses und Aron. With its pitches F-F♯-E and their retrograde E-F♯-F, the shofar motif is a variant of the theme of divine will in Scene 1, mm. 11-12 of the opera, where God reveals Himself to Moses in the voice from the burning bush: D2-E♭2-D♭2-G2-F2-F♯2. The first three pitches D-E♭-D♭ are the inversion and retrograde of the fourth to sixth pitches G-F-F♯, and these two groups of three pitches are separated by a tritone (D♭-G), which remains half an octave in inversion. In all permutations: retrograde, inversion, retrograde of the inversion, this symmetrical theme remains itself and therefore, in Moses und Aron it is the perfect expression of the divine will to which Moses submits. The motif of the golden calf in Scene 3 and in mm. 977-8 of Scene 4 is derived from the motif of divine will, but in a caricatural and rhythmically irregular form.

In Scene 5, the last of Act II, *Schoenberg completed the libretto of Act III, but not the music. According to Michael Cherlin, Schoenberg’s Musical Imagination 234, there are two opinions on the status of Act III: “One, that Schoenberg could not complete the third act because he was at an impasse that would not permit him to go further after the close of Act II. From this point of view, Moses’ final words at the end of Act II [“O word, thou word that I lack!”] permit no continuation. A second perspective holds that the libretto for the final scene does bring some needed closure, and that it is appropriate, or even necessary for it to be spoken, with all music stripped away.” Moses heaps Aron with reproaches; Aron replies that he has acted out of love for his people and also for the divine idea, of which he must make a comprehensible representation to make the people believe in it. Moses shows no sympathy for this and remains convinced of the abstract idea, whereupon Aron objects that the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments in Moses’ hands, too, are “nur ein Bild, ein Teil des Gedankens” (“an image, a part of an idea”). In a frenzy of despair, Moses shatters the stone tablets—much later than in Exod. 32:19, where he already shatters the tablets on seeing the people dancing around the golden calf. Images, Aron argues, do not show God Himself, but the way to God and the Promised Land, and the same goes for the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments, for the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire that guided the people of Israel through the wilderness, and for the voice from the burning bush. Again Moses is not convinced and calls to God: “Unvorstellbarer Gott! Unaus-sprechlicher, vieldeutiger Gedanke! Lässt du diese Auslegung zu?” (“Inconceivable God! Inexpressible, manysided idea, will you let it be so explained?”) If Aron is allowed to make this image of God, then he, Moses, has himself created an image too, and then everything he had believed was wrong. With the desperate cry “O Wort, du Wort, das mir fehlt!” (“O word, thou word that I lack!”) he collapses.


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