DVD Review: Moses und Aron from the Ruhrtriennale

Moses und Aron by Arnold Schönberg. Conductor Michael Boder, director Willy Decker. Bochumer Symphoniker and ChorWerk Ruhr. Recorded live at Ruhrtriennale 2009. DVD publisher: EuroArts 2010.

It all starts with no stage in sight: the two sides of the auditorium face one another in half-dark. Moses (Dale Duesing) is sitting in the audience. An isolated spotlight detects him while he’s stating—Moses is a speaking role–that the monotheistic God is one, eternal, omnipresent and, ahem, unstatable. The Voice from the Burning Bush is here a six-part speaking chorus which orders him to proclaim the nature of God to his people. (Preceding all are the Six Solo Voices in the orchestra which get heard here, then remain silent until a later scene with Aron resorting to miracles before a disenchanted crowd.) Moses is reluctant, declares he lacks eloquence, and the Voice explains that his brother Aron will speak for him. The transformation of Moses into a prophet comes with his undressing: he sheds the suit, and as he comes down the stairs in between the rows of audience, the two auditoria start parting. A floor is gradually revealed, and a gigantic pencil lying against its paper whiteness. Moses lifts it up, then struggles to keep balance under its heaviness.

Aron (tenor Andreas Conrad) joins Moses and they have an argument about true nature of their task. Aron sings his views while Moses interjects to correct—that there should not be any images or symbols of God, and that humans can’t placate Him with offerings and sacrifices nor attempt any other kind of negotiation. Aron handles the gigantic pencil with ease and while debating, he’s drawing what turns out to be the Star of David, bringing to mind (well, to this shiksa at any rate) the flag of the state of Israel. Moses is outraged by any attempt to symbolize, and at the end of the scene folds in the drawing/carpet that Aron had self-contentedly drawn.

The people awaiting the two brothers are the chorus dressed in monochrome contemporary business casual, but placed within a transparent rectangle to indicate their captivity (to the Egyptians; to the old polytheistic religions). The crowd does what the crowd usually does, divides then polarizes into pro-new vs pro-status quo, when the black and white video shows Moses and Aron on their way there. All this is phenomenally directed for the video, with frequent shots from high above, God’s perspective if you will, or history’s. When the two arrive, the crowd wants to know God’s quiddity. Is He kind, is He angry, where is He, why can’t we see Him? A & M distribute blank papers. People stare at their papers, and after finding nothing tear them to pieces in mutiny. The rectangle comes down and encloses them again. Aron now resorts to miracles and images (projected onto the walls of the rectangle) and repeats the refrain about the “chosen folk” and the promised rescue from the bondage into the land of milk and honey. Moses stays aside while all this is happening, but the voices in the orchestra, as a sort of god-sanction, support Aron’s endeavour. The crowd finally embraces the religion and carries Moses (finally smiling, still clinging to his big pencil) outside towards light.

In the second act, due to Moses’s long absence, the crowd reverts to its old ways and demands the concrete gods they know, with visible, understandable award and retribution system and observable miracles. They’re waving threateningly their Moses placards; their idol is betraying them. The anger rises and Aron relents; he announces he will give them the god they know. Enter the Golden Calf, begin the orgy of indulgence scene. There is stripping to birthsuits, human sacrifice, healing miracles, sexual orgy, and then finally exhaustion and silence. At that point, the arrival of Moses is announced. He is coming down from his seclusion with the Ten Commandments (Duesing is dragging behind him a long white paper train filled with words).

The final scene is another scene of confrontation between Moses and Aron. Aron argues that representation is inescapable, moreover required, because even if inadequate, it can give hope. Even the Tables of the Law are not direct truth but its symbolization. Moses gets into another fit, and wants to quit this whole damned prophecy calling. The crowd gets fired up by the hymn of the chosen people, and marches out, Aron joining. Moses despairs at their falling for yet another image/idol.

Decker’s is a great production, using the simple colours, costumes and props to create a richly interpretive environment (another production on DVD, for example, creates a Las Vegas for the Golden Calf scene. Unnecessary, and too entertaining. There’s only blood and naked human bodies here, and it’s more than enough). How does one do musical criticism for a 12-tone work? “The singing was chilling, the orchestra played unsettlingly enough and made us rethink what music is for?” Honestly, I don’t know. What I can say is that the text and the music were twinned in the way that atonality and dramatic text can be twinned to the great benefit of both.

M&A is a work which makes many people rush to proclaim it a “masterpiece”, and tricks musicologists into praising its “spiritual” qualities (terminology no musicologist has any business using). In my Grove Book of Operas, O. W. Neighbour opines that “From every point of view, whether musical, religious or philosophical, the opera is Schoenberg’s most comprehensive religious masterpiece.”  Well. Its subject is certainly important and interesting: the birth of monotheism, and its difficulty. As the main line of division in M&A runs along the question of representation, this opera could also be seen as a conversation between two types of monotheism: Christianity (which goes wild with representation) on the one hand, and Judaism and Islam on the other. Not only are pictures, music etc. inadequate at representing God, they are misleading and harmful. Moses’s side is the side of the suspicion for language and symbolic communication, which are seen as a distancing, alienation from some sort of a primal state. Muteness is closer to the Ineffable, representation always fails (describing) the Object and so on. This question is related to the old philosophical chestnut about the truth-value of art and literature.

All this is found in its cradle, as it were, and dramatized through the characters of the two brothers and their interaction with the ‘people’ (possibly: people of the future; us). The myth is taken at face value, in that it is accepted as a staging of fundamental importance. Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, for example, questions the need for the foundation myths of peoples and religions, and undermines the Jewishness of Moses. (You’ll also remember what he writes about the need for the omnipotent God of monotheism.) Schönberg in a way does the opposite, he reinstates the importance of the myth of Moses and Aron. A move one could find conservative, were it not for the good productions, such as this one, which are able to open up the multiple layers of meaning of this unfinished-finished opera for today’s listeners.


14 thoughts on “DVD Review: Moses und Aron from the Ruhrtriennale

  1. Wonderfully detailed review. This did not make me scuttle off to Amazon but it did make me trawl YT and there are a surprising number of excerpts to peruse, audio as well as video. It does seem that the Willy Decker was a cracking production and the others, done in a more traditional setting, pale by comparison.

  2. How does one comment the 12-tone music, though? What do critics do?

    I know that, for example, in visual/media arts, criticism now is much different than what it was when painting was the thing.

    1. I’m guessing Alex Ross reviewed the Met production for the New Yorker, so it might be worth trolling back issues. (Spring of ’99?)

      1. The cast is more or less in contemporary dress, with Moses as a barrel-chested businessman (with bare feet) and Aron looking rather like his chauffeur. The Israelites are first seen miming everyday activities — chatting, working out, typing, online stock trading, etc. — until the golden calf arrives and all hell breaks loose. Women in fur coats read fan magazines, disco-dancing punks rough up their girls, old men don plastic bags and suffocate (but later return to life and walk offstage), beggars carry tattered umbrellas, naked virgins (still in their undies — the Met is a family house, after all) strangle themselves on a red clothesline, and paparazzi seize photo ops everywhere.


  3. Surely personal response to this genre is the only way to go? as the complexities are beyond most of us.
    I must admit to never having read a critique of 12 tone but possibly some of your more erudite readers may have.

    What was your response to Kurtág, for instance?

    1. Video is even better, thanks!

      Edited to add:
      But he speaks in German with no subtitles.

      Edited yet again:
      D’you know, I really should start learning German. A woman who sat next to me and screamed with me during the Medee curtain call in Frankfurt at one point turned to me and said something in German. There was joy in her voice, she sounded thrilled and also inflected the sentence as it were a question. I HAD NO IDEA WHAT SHE SAID.

  4. And all this time I’ve assumed you were a German-speaker! Me neither, although my brother-in-law is German. I guess you got by in Frankfurt though?

  5. Of course, everybody I interacted with spoke English. And they were extraordinarily friendly when I’d come out as an English-speaker. In Berlin, for example, a much bigger and more international city, I’d occasionally get the attitude when defaulting to English. (A bakery at the main railways station, e.g.) It never happened in Frankfurt. Gad, I wish I said to this woman “Forgive me, but can you say that in English?” We Otterians should safekeep each other.

  6. Belated thanks for this fascinating review of what sounds like a fascinating production! The blank page and the dramatization of the debate on representing the divine recalls (to this medievalist) Augustine of Hippo’s remark that God is “the ultimate silence,” whom human language tries to approach through the least misleading metaphor possible.

    Re: 12-tone, Boulez says that, after many years of not looking at the score of M&A, he felt the need to seriously study it again, because of its complex polyphony, so he went through each scene analyzing what he calls its 12-tone technique. (“I always have this tendency to academicism,” he says self-deprecatingly.) He expresses astonishment at how the whole substance is generated by the single 12-tone sequence, “with transpositions, naturally.” Interestingly, he sees connections between the M&A drama and Schoenberg’s composing career, with the tension between his desire to seduce and his desire to write according to a functional rule (“Gesetz.”) In the production he’s discussing, it sounds as though he pressured the director away from a tacked-on Promised Land because he (Boulez) thought that leaving it on a hopeless note, with both Moses and Aron punished, was truer to the work. He also brings up the perceived resonance with Schoenberg’s life here (forced, after composing the first two acts, to flee to the U.S. etc. etc.)

    *Extra apologies if this verbose post appears twice; my internet cut out in the middle of the first attempt.

  7. And now WP is cutting your posts?! These pesky blogging systems all presume our readers can’t string more than one sentence per comment.

    Thanks so much for this, Lucia. So it seems that Boulez decided too do the Third Act. There are two possibilities of a Third Act, apparently — there’s the Promised Land third act, in which the people end up in a mystic unity with God; and the one in which Aron ends up arrested and Moses wins the debate. It seems that Boulez chose the second one, and left Moses non-triumphant too. I’ll investigate which M&A that is, there’s got to be some record of it.

    Ha! Schoenberg as the Moses of composers–if he didn’t seduce us the posterity, it’s our fault? How apt! And how hilariously pompous. Oh, the men of the avant-garde.

    I was hoping you’d get your medievalist erudition into the conversation. What I was (inappropriately!) reminded of was Wittgenstein’s “Of that whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

    1. Somehow I’d never seen this Wittgenstein film before… the first 10 minutes are brilliant! Thanks for that delightful discovery.

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