4.21. Kurt Weill, oratorio ‘The Eternal Road’ (1936)

The production of the oratorio The Eternal Road, Biblical Drama in Four Parts by Kurt Weill (1900-1950) in 1937 required 245 singers and actors, 1772 costumes, 1000 stage lights, 42 kilometers of electrical wire and a remodeling of the Manhattan Opera Theater, and in spite of several cuts, the first performance ended just before midnight. The two horn blasts in this work take up only five measures in total, but they are of great importance, as they represent the shofar blasts by the Angel of the end of days.

The initiative for the oratorio came from producer Meyer Weisgal, who wanted to protest against the persecution of Jews in Germany with a work that would not only show the “eternal road” of suffering of the Jewish people, but also the Zionist perspective at the end of that road. In 1934, Weisgal engaged director Max Reinhardt with the telegram “If Hitler does not want you, I’ll take you!” and Reinhardt suggested asking two other exiled artists: the writer Franz Werfel and the composer Kurt Weill.

In The Eternal Road, a Jewish congregation and their rabbi suffer a pogrom; they spend the night awake in the synagogue, not knowing what their fate will be. Place and time are not specified, and the characters do not bear proper names but generic names, such as the orthodox “Pious Men and Women” and the assimilated “Estranged One.” The rabbi prays with his congregation and tells stories from the Bible in order to inspire them with courage and strengthen their Jewish consciousness. This series of Bible stories, which are staged in the oratorio, is extremely comprehensive and encompasses “The Patriarchs” (Act I), “Moses” (Act II), “The Kings” (Act III), and “Prophets” (Act IV). There is an intensive dialogue between the biblical chronotopes, in the 1937 production located at four different levels on stage, and the chronotope of the synagogue, located in the orchestra pit. Because there was too little room left for the large symphony orchestra, the music was recorded on film soundtrack and was rendered through speakers and only a small orchestra of 16 musicians—required by union rules—played live in a soundproof backstage room. *Levin, The Eternal Road, “Program notes” 12.

The Eternal Road is a scenic oratorio in a Prologue and four Acts. *The reconstructed performance material of The Eternal Road is available on special order only. Therefore, this chapter deals with the manuscript page with the “shofar blasts,” made available by the Kurt Weill Foundation, and with highlights of the oratorio, recorded on CD. The biblical scenes have the form of arias, ensembles and choruses and the part of the rabbi is a hybrid whole with elements from baroque oratorios, motifs from synagogal chant and metric recitatives with organ accompaniment, as in German Reform liturgy. The Prologue is set in the synagogue; the rabbi vainly begged for mercy from the authorities and prepares his congregation for the worst. Act I deals with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and there are also parts for Rachel and Joseph; in Act II, Moses plays the leading part and Act III deals with material from the book of Kings with parts for Ruth, Samuel, Saul, David and Solomon.

The action of Act IV includes matter from the prophetic books, such as Jeremiah’s conflict with the false prophet Hananiah and King Zedekiah. The king chooses the false prophet and the consequences are the sacking of Jerusalem, the destruction of the first Temple and exile in Babylon. When the rabbi tells this story, the congregation members see the parallels with their own situation and call for the Messiah, who finally makes his voice heard and confirms the fulfillment of the Covenant.

In the first version of his libretto, Franz Werfel had introduced the Messiah as the third and final prophet (after Isaiah and Jeremiah). Werfel, “an assimilated Jew with leanings to Roman Catholicism” *Hinton, Weill’s Musical Theater 239 was, according to the musicologist Stephen Hinton,

evidently more invested in the theology of the work’s “Messianic” message—or at least, differently invested—than Weill. Whether God’s promise would lead to the coming of the Messiah (the “Anointed One”) as savior (specifically as “Yeshua,” or Jesus); or whether he was to bring the Jewish people back to Israel and restore jerusalem—this is the crux on which the more salient differences between Weisgal and his collaborators doubtless hinged. *Ibid. 255.

Another problem was the great length of the oratorio. Eventually Act IV was removed, except for the shofar blasts and the final chorus, whereas the Messiah disappeared and the text was assigned to “the Angel of the End of Days” and the “Voice of God.” *The Angel of the end of days is not a frequent figure in the Jewish traditional religious texts. According to the musicologist David Drew (“Der Weg der Verheissung: Weill at the Crossroads” 44), the Angel in The Eternal Road is derived from the book of Revelation in the New Testament, more precisely, from Rev. 10:5-7, where an angel blowing a trumpet announces the fulfillment of the mystery of God, and Rev. 21:1-4 with the vision of the new Jerusalem, where death, mourning and crying and pain will be no more. However, the connection of the book of Revelation with The Eternal Road, which lacks seven angels and a new Jerusalem, does not seem tenable.

This voice in Scene 40 has a triple addressee: the people of Israel (on stage), the Jewish congregation in the synagogue (in the orchestra pit) and the audience (in the theater):

Ye mourners! No judgment which morals have wrought
Can blot out Israel or bring him to naught.
The promise and covenant given thee are
More lasting than ocean and mountain and star.
Accept even pain, for the things that are ill
Are sent by the Lord to strengthen your will.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . Wander, set free of all harm,
Into the kingdom of my strong arm.

The “strong arm” refers to Exod. 6:6, where God promises to redeem the Israelites with His “outstretched arm,” and to Exod. 14, where He keeps His promise, which is commemorated in the Haggadah of Pesaḥ. On the last word “arm” of the recitative, the unison horns enter with a blast that should be interpreted in this context as a shofar blast, *This interpretation is supported by the musicologist David Drew; according to his study “Der Weg der Verheissung: Weill at the Crossroads” 44, the first call is “shofar-like” and the second “another shofar-call.” It is also supported by the music critic Rob Barnett in his review of the CD recording of The Eternal Road: “It ends . . . with horns ringing out in a Shofar-blaze of magnificence.” which can be linked to the Amidah *The Koren Siddur 120 and to Shofarot, the last of the three central blessings in the Rosh Ha-Shanah liturgy: “O God and God of our ancestors, / sound the great shofar for our freedom, . . . Bring us to Zion, Your city, in joy, / and to Jerusalem, Your Temple, in everlasting happiness.”



Ex. 5. Kurt Weill, The Eternal Road (Manuscript), Scene 40, Nos. 17–19. French horns in F, trumpets in B♭. © 1937 by European American Music Corporation. © Renewed. All Rights Reserved. Reproduced by permission of European American Music Corporation, agent for the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc., New York.

Weill does not quote a traditional shofar blast, as Elgar did in his oratorio The Apostles, *Chapter 4.5 neither does he paraphrase it, like Bloch in Psalm 114 and Schelomo; instead, his models are trumpet blasts from the 19th-century symphonic and operatic repertoire with heroic connotations. The horn blast in The Eternal Road resembles the trumpet blast at the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 (1877); this blast is also characterized by repeated notes (on an A♭), double-dotted rhythms and a triplet (on the notes F-G-A♭), and according to Tchaikovsky it has the symbolic meaning of “Fate, that fateful force that prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal, which hangs above your head like the sword of Damocles.” *Brown, Tchaikovsky 147. Weill’s horn blast also exhibits similarities with the trumpet blast from Act II, Scene 3 from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio (1805), a blast which is also accompanied by a pedal point in the bass; here, the trumpet announces the arrival of the liberator Don Fernando, whereupon the prisoners thank God for their salvation. *In an interview with David James Fisher (Bettelheim: Living and Dying 134) about his imprisonment in the concentration camp Buchenwald, the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim describes his experience, when a camp commander played some records on a Sunday afternoon: “Suddenly, there was a Fidelio, which was an overture. A blast of trumpets which marks the liberation; I felt strongly that it was the voice of freedom from Buchenwald.” Cf. Chapter 4.28 on a comparable experience of Primo Levi.

The shofar blast in The Eternal Road, No. 17, mm. 6-8 (cf. Ex. 5), is repeated in a slightly altered way in No. 18, mm. 4-5. In the prevailing key of C, an entrance on C or G would have been more obvious; instead, the blast starts with a B♭ (real pitch) and seems to prepare a modulation to F major, which, however, does not follow. The mysterious, static, unchanged C major could be interpreted as symbolizing the eternal covenant, whereas the interrupting B♭ could represent the surprising divine intervention. As shown in Ex. 5, the five measures following the first blast and the five measures after the second blast are filled by the bourdon 5th C/G in the violas, cellos and double basses, whereas the G is ornamented by the violins, the first time by the motif G4-A4-F4-F4-E4-F4-G4-D4 (No. 17, m. 9 – No. 18, m. 3), the second time by G4-A4-D4-A4-G4-F♯4-G4 (No. 18, mm. 6-10). The materials of both the shofar blast and the first violin motif have been used earlier in The Eternal Road, namely in Scene 21, where Moses descends from Mount Sinai and sees the people dancing around the golden calf. *Cf. the “shofar blast,” also in a unison of the French horns, in Schoenberg, Moses und Aron, Act II, Scene 4. Chapter 4.16. In a “Beam of Light” the voice of God sounds to a slow variant of the shofar blast above the drone D/A, and enters into a dialogue with Moses: “Break not in on my wrath . . . On thee will I found another people . . . I blot out all those who sin . . . Moses, arise;” God’s voice concludes with “For thy sake only will I forgive them” on the violin motif, a major 2nd higher than in Scene 40.

This Scene 40, the final one of the oratorio, produces a chronotopic change. The soldiers surround the Jews and force them to leave the synagogue; headed by the biblical characters from the oratorio, the congregation treads the “Eternal Road,” and from above, the Angel of the end of days meets them on the heavenly stairs. After an introduction of four measures (cf. Ex. 5), the congregation begins the “March to Zion.” This is a paraphrase of Ps. 126, referring explicitly to the Covenant and implicitly to Gen. 28:12 on Jacob and the stairway to the sky, to 1 Sam. 6:15 with the procession on Mount Zion, and to Isa. 18:3 and 27:12-13 with the same chronotope:

When the Lord will deliver us to Zion again,
Then shall we be like unto dreamers,
A laughing upon our lips shall arise,
And praise stream forth with our singing.
For the Lord has performed great wonders for us.
Who soweth in fears shall reap in gladness.
In sorrow we strewed the seed in earth,
We gather the sheaves in rejoicing.

The amazingly light-hearted, Broadway-like melody of the “March to Zion” at the conclusion of The Eternal Road had already appeared three times in Scene 23. The first time as an instrumental background to Joshua’s call “Israel, Israel!” when Moses is about to give the Ten Commandments to the people; the second time after Moses’ words: “Now go consoled and comforted toward Canaan the blessed” and the third time immediately thereafter in the Chorus of Israelites: “We halt no more, and we are not afraid, / For the Lord our God shall lead us onward / To the Land, fare ye well, / To the Land of our vision.”

The Eternal Road is one of a number of works in A Tool of Remembrance in which eschatology plays an important part. In one of them, Uriel Birnbaum’s drawing A Great Shofar Is Sounded, *Chapter 4.20 eschatology is connected with the day of judgment, represented by the threatening figure of the shofar blowing angel. In three other works, eschatology is connected to a more this-worldly messianic age and to delivery from bondage. *As formulated by the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion 459. In two of them, messianic expectations are not fulfilled; in Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik’s poem And it shall be when the days grow long… *Chapter 4.6 the eagerly awaited Messiah does not come to offer a perspective of a better and more inspiring life, whereas the Jews in Alexander Goehr’s music theater piece Sonata about Jerusalem *Chapter 4.43 are bitterly deceived in their messianic expectations and do not succeed in escaping Baghdad. In contrast, The Eternal Road is the only work in which the shofar announces a fulfillment of messianic expectations.

Kurt Weill’s oratorio The Eternal Road is an equally monumental composition to Arnold Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron, and in both works, the biblical Past is directed by the Present of the anti-Semitism of the 1930s. Despite the presence of the shofar, in both cases represented by French horns in unison, the differences between the two works are immense. This is due to the very different addressees of the two composers. Weill argued in 1928: “[M]usic is no longer a matter of the few . . . [it is] simpler, cleaner, more transparent. It no longer wishes to represent philosophies,” *Weill, Berliner Tageblatt, December 25, 1928 whereas Schoenberg in his essay The Future of Opera, written one year earlier, claimed the opposite: “[T]he opera of the future cannot be art for the masses . . . the minority that can understand deeper things will never let itself be satisfied wholly and exclusively by what everyone can understand.” *Schoenberg, “The Future of Opera” 337. In 1930, Schoenberg responded to Weill’s popular Dreigroschenoper (“Three Penny Opera”) (1928) with his own attempt at a popular opera, titled Von heute auf morgen (“From Today to Tomorrow”). Though the comparison of an artist with a character created by him is generally problematic, many authors have noticed the similarities between Schoenberg and his own Moses, and the musicologist Edward Latham may be right when he goes even a step further: “Like Moses, Schoenberg believed that the idea was unavoidably and intentionally difficult; after Von heute auf morgen he left Aron’s role to Weill.” *Latham, “The Prophet and the Pitchman” 134.

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