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  • God's Broken Medium:On Genre and Geschichtsphilosophie in Schoenberg's Moses und Aron
  • Sarah M. Pourciau (bio)

Arnold Schoenberg's unfinished twelve-tone opera Moses und Aron, composed between 1930 and 1932, has had a somewhat peculiar reception history. On the one hand, despite widespread consensus that the two scored acts represent Schoenberg at the pinnacle of his powers, this most important composition by one of music history's most important composers has received astonishingly few actual performances. Schoenberg himself never heard it, nor did he compose as though he expected to: "Since I can't reckon on a performance of the work over the next decades," he wrote in 1931, "I didn't place any constraints on myself with respect to the difficulties for choir and orchestra."1 And it has never entered the standard repertory of the world's major opera houses (due in part to the extraordinary difficulty of the choral writing) in contrast, for instance, to the atonal operas of his student, Alban Berg.2 On the other hand, the work has entered the canon of modernist scholarship, both within the field of opera studies, where it often plays the role of paradigmatic twentieth-century opera for scholars surveying the expanse of post-Wagnerian forms,3 and within the field of European intellectual history, where it not infrequently plays the role of paradigmatic modern artwork per se.4

Even all but unstaged, in other words, the idea of the opera continues to cast a long shadow, and this disjunction seems particularly relevant in light of the fact that the shadow it casts has everything to do with the problem of "staging" the Idea for the senses. Schoenberg's Moses seeks to convey the idea or thought (Gedanke) of a radically transcendent God to the Jewish people, who believe exclusively in what they can see and touch. His failure to do so, at least in the manner he initially envisions, has almost universally been construed as the fulcrum of the opera, which is correspondingly presumed to be "about" the problem—grown particularly pressing under modern, materialistic conditions—of representing the unrepresentable to the skeptical. Moses's inability to impose his defiantly un-modern vision of timeless truth on his people is thought to mirror the predicament of modern artists and [End Page 140] philosophers, among them Schoenberg himself, who seek in vain to articulate an escape from the stifling immanence of a post-theological, post-geschichtsphilosophical ever-same. The opera thematizes, in such a reading, the implacable march of secularization, and the result is a quintessentially modernist work about the impossibility of traditional opera, with its claims to mediate, generically, between the extremes of music and language, emotion and intellect, noumenon and phenomenon, Idea and world.5 Moses und Aron is an "anti-opera" (Herbert Lindenberger), "an opera directed against the very principle of opera" (Slavoj Žižek), an "anti-Parsifal" (Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Žižek, and many others),6 which succeeds precisely to the extent that it stages the limitations, and ultimate breakdown, of its own musical-dramatic genre.

The difficulty with this line of approach is that the plot of the opera, as set out in the libretto composed by Schoenberg himself, does not actually revolve around a failure. Whatever else Schoenberg changes about the biblical text he adopts as his substrate, his text remains unambiguously faithful to the Exodus account's central themes of accomplished liberation and binding nation-formation, which come together in Moses und Aron to yield the unity of a traditional dramaturgical event. The creation of a new, independent political entity, loyal to the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" rather than to Pharaoh, as foretold in the opening scene of the opera, gets realized over the course of act 1, put into question in act 2, and reaffirmed in act 3, in perfect accord with the conventional dramatic model of task-struggle-triumph, thesis-antithesis-synthesis, exposition-crisis-denouement. To ignore or deny this aspect of the work's construction, as readings founded exclusively on the thesis of Mosaic (and operatic) failure invariably must, is thus to evade the particular challenge it poses to our received ideas about...


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pp. 140-160
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