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  • Arnold Schoenberg's Jewish Trauerspiel:Aesthetics, Allegory, and Ethics in Moses und Aron
  • Marc Caplan (bio)

Arnold Schoenberg's ethical and aesthetic aims in the opera fragment Moses und Aron, as well as the targets of his dissent from the cultural legacy that had shaped his music, resonate with a 1938 poem by the American Yiddish author Jacob Glatstein. In Glatstein's lyric A gite nakht velt (Good night, world) the poet writes "Ikh gey tsurik tsu daled-ames / fun vagner's gets-muzik tsu nign, brumen" (I'm going back to my four cubits, / from Wagner's idol-music to wordless tune and murmur).1 Glatstein's dramatic contrast of the explicitly Jewish and liturgical category of nigun (roughly, "wordless chant; liturgical melody; meditative moan") with the pagan yet cosmopolitan and modern cult of Richard Wagner—part of the poem's larger distinction between Jewish culture and a Western civilization that in the poet's description was rededicating itself to anti-Semitic bloodlust and mayhem throughout Europe—recapitulates the dynamic motivating Schoenberg's opera, abandoned in 1933. The opera strives to depict the disparity between an absolute divinity in its unrepresentability and the temptations of excess, depravity, and violence that false gods and graven images inevitably sanction. If one understands Parsifal, for example, as Wagner's attempt to create a Christian pageant devoid of any Jewish connotations, then Moses und Aron is an effort to articulate a Jewishness devoid of Christian associations.2 Indeed, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe has referred to Moses und Aron as "nothing other than the negative (in the photographic sense) of Parsifal."3 As Lacoue-Labarthe suggests, it is not a repudiation of Wagnerian aesthetics, any more than Glatstein's poem is a repudiation of Western civilization, [End Page 559] but a dialectical inversion, an effort at Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) conceived from Judaic rather than Nordic sources.

Schoenberg fashioned his own libretto for the opera, freely adapting the biblical narrative of Moses and Aaron—even altering the spelling of Aaron to Aron. The change signifies more than caprice; the story of Moses and Aron in Schoenberg's retelling has little more in common with the Book of Exodus from which it is adapted than the musical Camelot has with everyday life during England in the Middle Ages. Where the Pentateuch for the most part depicts Moses and Aaron as a nearly indivisible team—the former pleading on behalf of the newly constituted Jewish people to God, the latter implementing the instructions for ritual purity that constitute the bulk of God's first commandments from Mount Sinai—Schoenberg perceives a philosophical and theological conflict between the two figures by virtue of Moses's tongue-tied obeisance to a "single, eternal, omnipresent, invisible and unimaginable God," and Aron's overeager fluency and consequent capacity for representation.4 Though the ostensible protagonist is Moses, for much of the opera he is offstage, communicating with an equally inaccessible, though musically present, God, while Aron contends with the Children of Israel's debates over whether such a God could defeat the gods they had known in Egypt, and whether such a God would be worthy of their exclusive devotion.

As in the biblical account, these disputes, a consequence as much of Moses's inaccessibility as God's inscrutability, spill over into mutiny, until Aron is able to mollify the rebels with a graven image, the Golden Calf. The dramatic climax of the opera, however, presents a spectacle of extraordinary debauchery as the Children of Israel follow Moses's logic in equating the worship of a graven image with an indulgence of every selfish and sensuous desire—including rape and human sacrifice, both shown on stage with varying degrees of explicitness, depending on the production.5 It is at this moment that Moses reenters the narrative to chastise Aron for his betrayal of the prohibition against graven images and the covenant with God. Aron responds, however, by stating that words are as much a representation of an inconceivable Deity as idols, and the tablets bearing the Law are as much a graven image as the Golden Calf. This is what compels Moses to smash the tablets and exclaim the most...


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