About this Recording
8.660158-59 - SCHOENBERG: Moses und Aron
English  German 

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
Moses und Aron
(Acts I and II)

Text by the Composer

Moses - Wolfgang Schöne
Aaron - Chris Merritt
Young Girl - Irena Bespalovaite
Young Man - Bernhard Schneider
Another Man / Ephraimite - Michael Ebbecke
Priest - Karl-Friedrich Dürr
First Elder - Ulrich Frisch
Second Elder - Saša Vrabac
Third Elder - Stephan Storck
Invalid Woman - Emma Curtis
Four Naked Virgins - Irena Bespalovaite, Helga Rós Indridadóttir, Naomi Ishizu, Emma Curtis
A Naked Youth - Alois Riedel
Six Solo Voices - Barbara Kosviner, Ilona Wirgler, Ingrid Zielosko, Siegfried Laukner ,Peter Schaufelberger, Saša Vrabac

Stuttgart State Orchestra
Stuttgart State Opera Chorus, Stuttgart State Opera Children's Chorus
(Chorus-master: Michael Alber)
Polish Radio Choir, Kraków (Chorus-master: Marek Kluza)
Roland Kluttig



“Before their ears you shall do wonders”

Like many Jewish artists Arnold Schoenberg, in view of the increasing antisemitism in Germany and Austria in the 1920s and 1930s, found himself brought to a clarification of his relationship with Judaism. In the summer of 1921 an anonymous letter had called upon the then 46-year-old composer to give up his holiday place at Mattsee, a threat that was to end in the systematic destruction of his position in musical life and his expulsion into American exile. This break in his life marks also the beginning of his work on the theme of Moses, discernible from 1922. He himself in 1933 returned to the faith of Moses, which he had left in 1898 in favour of Lutheranism.

The opera Moses and Aaron, written in these years of upheaval between 1928 and 1932, remained unfinished: of the three planned acts (I. Calling, II. The Golden Calf, III. Aaron's Death) the first two were completed, of the third there exist several unfortunately unfinished attempts at a text by Schoenberg himself, who here, as already in his 'drama with music' Die glückliche Hand (The Fortunate Hand) and the oratorio Die Jakobsleiter (Jacob's Ladder), was his own librettist. Nevertheless it must be seen as the composer's 'fragmentary masterpiece'. This assessment of the opera is not only because it is his most comprehensive score, but also because it represents the climax of his association with the dodecaphonic method of composition, described by Schoenberg himself as 'a method of composition with twelve notes related only to each other'. Schoenberg himself declared with some pride: 'I could even base a whole opera, Moses and Aaron, on a single tone-row' (Composition with Twelve Notes).

The principle of integral musical construction, the fact that all the musical forms of the opera are generated from one and the same basic tone-row, demanded a very specific method of dramatic composition. It draws its figures and motifs from the biblical Book of Exodus, the foundation myth of the Jewish people, yet avoids a directly programmatic representation of the antagonism that gives the narrative its structure: the freeing of God's chosen people from its enslavement under the Egyptian idolaters. A comparison with other contemporary adaptations makes this clear. Paul Dessau's oratorio Haggadah (1936) comes to mind, with a text by Max Brod, and Kurt Weill's Weg der Verheissung (text by Franz Werfel, 1934/35, first performed in 1937 in New York as The Eternal Road). These works show in the image of Egyptian slavery a comparison with the unprecedented level of oppression and persecution of the Jews in Hitler's Germany. In remembering the biblical exodus into the promised land they seek hope for the present. Schoenberg on the other hand takes no account of the 'drama' of the exodus and with it the relationship of the Jews to their oppressors. These themes, as well as their political implications, Schoenberg dealt with separately in his play Der biblische Weg (The Biblical Way) (1922-27). In the opera Schoenberg's objective is to represent the personality clashes between the individual characters of Moses, Aaron and the people, and, because of the religio-philosophical positioning of the opera, there are no direct references to the historical present.

The eponymous heroes of this drama of ideas are the dissimilar brothers, Moses and Aaron. Their dispute articulates the necessary and, at the same time, impossible expression of the idea of the 'one, eternal and unknowable God', to whom no image can do justice. From this springs Moses' tragedy: on the one hand is his conviction of the absolute and unknowable nature of God, and, on the other, lies his own inability to fulfil his mission to communicate what, by its very nature, is virtually an impossible task. The chorus of the 'Children of Israel', as the third principal character in the opera, represents the attitude of the masses. Individual figures that, as a solo quartet, from time to time come forward from the crowd, do not appear as individuals, but express, together with other smaller solo parts, the different moods of the people. In this way, as the people are subjected to a succession of different opinions, so the collective dynamic of their innermost beliefs finds expression.

The position that Aaron assumes as interpreter and communicator between Moses and the people is often dismissed as that of a demagogue and agitator. In fact he is a mediator who shares the thinking of Moses and at the same time knows of the people's need for concrete images. The voice from the burning bush which announces to Moses in the first scene of the opera 'Before their ears you shall do wonders' defines the miracle of authentification - Moses' staff that will turn into a serpent, his hand marked by leprosy and healed again, the changing of water into blood - not as a form of magic, but aims at the miracle of verbal mediation, at the, in Schoenberg's terminology, 'spoken wonder' that the 'slowness of tongue' of Moses cannot achieve. Aaron's ability as a speaker is the capacity to find metaphors and interpret them. He is in a position to reach the people with imagery and make it possible for them to understand themselves in a clear biblical picture. Aaron's gift of verbal communication and the divine miraculous signs that are intended to legitimate the mission of Moses – two quite different themes in the biblical account – Schoenberg regards them as identical. In his drafts he explains: 'Aaron will speak to their eyes: that is, Aaron will bring before their eyes things in such persuasive language that they believe they are seeing miracles'. Schoenberg thus clearly breaks away from the retelling of the biblical story; rather he explains its images in Aaron's words. Here he places himself in a specifically Jewish tradition of scriptural exegesis - an aspect that is often overlooked through the well-known self-identification of the composer with the figure of Moses. 'Before their ears you shall do wonders …' this formulation hides also the key to Schoenberg's frequently contested decision to assign Aaron's eloquence to the sensual timbre of a lyrico-dramatic tenor voice and confine the 'slowness of tongue' of Moses to a spoken part: 'song' not as a bel canto style indulgence, but as a metaphor for lucid verbal communication.

'The meaning of the events is completely different from their biblical sense', Fedele d'Amico has precisely stated, 'for the Bible the resort of Aaron to the golden calf is a falling back into idolatry, rather as heathen polytheism is opposed the monotheism of Moses. For Schoenberg's Aaron the golden calf is simply a further symbol for the same God of Moses, a visible sign, indispensable for the people for them to come into contact in some way with his invisible being, and to be able to perceive and love him also in imperfect and limited form. […] For Moses, on the other hand, every 'sign' is only degradation: and of course not only the miracles and the material promises but also the table of the law, which he breaks for that reason as a trivial materialisation of the divine ethic.' (Berlin, 1959) The tables of the law and the golden calf: in the radical interpretation of Schoenberg these – the analogy is with the compositional style - are in no way categorically different: they are emanations of one and the same abstract series method, an aesthetic cypher for the inexpressible divine name. So this score, sublimated to the highest point, peaks in a sequence of unique illustrative suggestions: in the dance around the golden calf. The escalation in this turbulent scene of the second act appears consequently part of the problem of the abstract 'divine thought' itself: Moses has led the people into the imageless region of the wilderness. The wilderness, however, is the nothingness of the fata morgana and of phantasmagoria, setting loose, as it were, a series of illusory images.

The indissoluble double bond between Moses and Aaron, on which all Schoenberg's attempts to cope with the third act foundered, reflects the question of how to deal with the dilemma of communication: the hard line and necessity, the opportunistic approach and failure. The opera thus takes as its theme the central question that every interpretative art has to pose – thus also completely centralto the theatrical art of opera. Rarely in the realisation of an opera score has the question of the self awareness of the form itself and its function been so radically dealt with as here.

Sergio Morabito
English version by Keith Anderson




Act I

Scene 1: The Calling of Moses

[CD 1 / Track 1] Six solo voices in the orchestra sing mysterious chords, suggesting the divine. The curtain rises. Moses prays to the one, eternal, all-present, invisible and unimaginable God. The voice from the Burning Bush, comprising four then six singers, echoed by six solo voices from the orchestra, bids him take his shoes off, for the place where he is standing is holy ground. Moses prays to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob not to compel him into the rôle of prophet, but to be allowed to tend his sheep in peace. The voice tells him that he must set his people free. Moses is reluctant, but the voice tells him that united with God he must tear the people free from Pharaoh. In despair Moses asks what proof he should give of his mission, as no one will believe him. Before their ears, he is told, he will do wonders; by his rod they will hear him and wonder at his wisdom; from the water of the Nile they will realise what their own blood commands. Moses pleads that he is slow of tongue; he can think but not speak. He is told that he will sense God's voice in everything; Aaron shall be his mouth, his words coming from the lips of Aaron. His people are chosen before all others, the people of the one God, to know and worship him; he is promised that he will be led where he may be united with the eternal One, an example to his people. The voice tells him that Aaron is approaching and must be told the divine message.

Scene 2: Moses meets Aaron in the Wilderness

[1/2] Aaron approaches, greeting his brother and aware of the task before him. While Moses knows that the people have been chosen to know the invisible, unimaginable God, Aaron expresses his own understanding in more tangible form, represented in imagery, asking whether it is possible to worship that which cannot be imagined; God punishes the sins of the father on his children and children's children and rewards the faithful. Moses urges him to purify his way of thinking and let righteousness be its own reward. Aaron wonders at God's choice of a people so weary and oppressed; he prays that they be released from bondage to Pharaoh.

Scene 3: Moses and Aaron bring God's Message to the People

[1/3] A young girl has seen Aaron, like a burning flame, going to meet Moses; she tells how he threw himself down on his knees and hid his face in the sand. A young man tells how Aaron passed his house, like a cloud of light, quickly passing out of sight. Another man had called to him, but had no answer; then he heard that God had told him to meet his brother Moses in the wilderness. A priest recalls Moses, who murdered an overseer and ran away, bringing on them the anger of Pharaoh. A man suggests that Moses will bring a new god to protect them, but the priest declares that the old gods did that. The men think the newest God may help against Pharaoh; others disagree, calling for blood sacrifice. The priest continues to maintain the worship of the old gods, while the people divide into opposing groups. The girl believes that Moses will make them free, and the people see Moses and Aaron approaching, in a mood of increasing excitement.

Scene 4

[1/4] The people seek to know whether Moses brings a message from the new God, to give them hope, eager to make offerings. Moses announces that the one, eternal, almighty, all-present, invisible, unimaginable wants offerings, not a part but everything; Aaron gives his own version of the divine mandate, telling the people to kneel down in worship. They wonder whom they should worship, as they see nothing; are they to love this God or to fear him. Aaron tells them to shut their eyes and stop their ears; only thus can they see and hear what no other living man sees and hears. Moses, who has stood back while Aaron speaks, comes forward again so that both are together; Aaron declares that the righteous shall see God. The girl, the young man and the other man, who have come forward through the crowd, express their own inspired vision, while the priest questions, therefore, the reason for a murderer to fear. The people mock Aaron, wanting nothing to do with this invisible god, neither to be loved nor feared.

[1/5] Moses is at the end of his strength, but Aaron angrily approaches Moses and seizes the latter's staff, which he hurls to the ground, at which it is transformed into a serpent, to general consternation. Aaron seizes the snake and puts it back in the hand of Moses, restored to its original form as a staff. The people are amazed at the miracle, with Aaron perhaps the servant of Moses, himself the servant of his God. The girl, the young man and the other man see this as a sign that Moses will set them free and are ready to serve him. The priest thinks the miracle will not persuade Pharaoh, but Aaron urges courage against the oppressor. He draws their eyes to the hand of Moses, healthy and strong; placed by Moses on his heart it turns leprous and the people draw back. Aaron tells them it is a sign of their own state of mind, but when Moses puts his hand in his bosom, he draws it out again healed, the second miracle.

[1/6] Through these visible signs the people start to believe and urge the struggle for their freedom, killing the overseers and Egyptian priests and making their way into the wilderness. The priest sees no way of living in the wilderness, but Moses promises them purity of thought. Aaron explains to the people how they are like children but will learn to be wiser; in the wilderness God will provide for them, who changed the staff of Moses and his leprous hand. He shows them a jar of Nile water, transformed into blood, their own blood, that will nourish as the Nile does the land; now he promises the people freedom in a new land of milk and honey, foretelling the fate of Pharaoh. They unite in a march, the chosen people, praising a God who is stronger than the gods of Egypt and eager for the promised land.


[2/1] In front of the curtains stands a small chorus, whispering, at first, the words 'Where is Moses?' He has been away from them for a long time, and they wonder, too, where is the Infinite One, his God. Moses has been away for forty days, and they fear he may not return.

Act II

Scene 1: Aaron and the Seventy Elders before the Mount of Revelation

[2/2] The elders and the priest complain of their wait of forty days for the law, unimaginable from an unimaginable God. Their situation is worse than in Egypt, with growing lawlessness. Aaron tries to reassure them, but there are sounds of angry shouting.

Scene 2

[2/3] The crowd approach, calling out against Moses and his God, and calling for other gods. They press around Aaron and the elders, the latter calling to Aaron to help them. Aaron addresses the people, telling them that Moses may even have been destroyed on the height of the mountain by his God, an idea which is taken up by the people. The elders call on Aaron again to help them. He addresses the people again, promising to give them back their gods, to general jubilation. He tells them to bring gold; they shall have their old gods.

Scene 3: The Golden Calf and the Altar

[2/4] Aaron declares that the image of the Golden Calf bears witness that in whatever is, God lives. The gold, as a principle, is unchangeable, apparently changeable, as everything else; the shape he has given the gold is of less importance, and they should honour themselves in the symbol. While he has been speaking, camels, asses, horses, porters and carts are brought together, bearing offerings of gold, grain, wine, oil, animals and so on. The offerings they bring are unloaded and heaped up. Preparations are made for sacrifice, with the sacrifical animals garlanded. The animals are slaughtered and pieces of meat thrown among the crowd, who fight over them or eat them raw. Cooking vessels are brought in, set over newly kindled fires, and burnt offerings are made. There is a dance of slaughtermen. A sick woman touches the Golden Calf and is cured. The meat is stewed in the cooking vessels and roasted on the fire; there is wine and oil, and the sacrifice of animals continues. Beggars cast off their rags, and some old men offer themselves in sacrifice.

[2/5] Horses are heard, and the tribal leaders and the Ephraimite ride in. They dismount before the Golden Calf, and offer homage. A young man, feverish and emaciated, tries to strike at the idolaters, but is seized by the Ephraimite and killed by the tribal leaders. The people exchange gifts among themselves, then turning to drunkenness, as wine is given out, and to an increasingly wild dance. The elders find meaning in what they see, as sense gives spirit sense.

[2/6] Four naked virgins come before the idol, one of them the girl heard before, who now worships the Golden Calf. They offer themselves in sacrifice, killed by the priests, their death cry heard, and their blood poured on the altar. The scene becomes an orgy of destruction, some killing themselves, others dancing wildly. A young man, naked, seizes a girl, stripping her clothes from her, and carrying her to the altar. Other men follow his example, before rushing away. The scene becomes quieter, with music and singing heard from the background, praising the Golden Calf. The fires die down, and all becomes quiet.

Scene 4: Moses descends from the Mountain

[2/7] In the background a man on a mound nearby looks for a moment at the Mount of Revelation. He rouses others near him and calls out. The people gather together. Moses appears, bidding the image of the Golden Calf be gone. The idol disappears and the people move back, leaving Moses and Aaron alone.

Scene 5: Moses and Aaron

[2/8] Moses asks Aaron what he has done. Aaron explains that he had provided the people with the miracles they needed for their eyes and ears, obeying the voice within him. He had thought Moses dead and as the people expected justice and law from Moses, so Aaron had given this to them in concrete form, providing them with an image. The word of Moses had destroyed the image, but Aaron argues that the words of Moses needed image and miracle in order to be understood. Moses tells him that he bears the tables of God's commandments, giving them to Aaron; the idea has power over words and images. Aaron, though, pleads his own understanding of the people and what they need; the tables of the law too are an image, a part of the idea. Moses then smashes the stone tables of the law and seeks from God release from his task, but Aaron sees his mission as to express the ideas of Moses in simple imagery. The people are seen marching, to their hymn as the chosen people, following a pillar of fire. They are joined by Aaron. As they march into the distance, Moses is left alone, praying to the God that is beyond imagination and expression; his idea was itself an image. He laments the word that he lacks, sinking to the ground in despair.

In a possible text for a single-scene third act, Schoenberg has Aaron as a prisoner before Moses. They argue about the importance of the idea over the image, Aaron again claiming the need to offer people images in a language they can understand. Moses, however, is victorious in their dispute. Aaron is released, but falls down dead.

Keith Anderson

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