Moses and Aaron

by Terence MacNamee

At the moment Schönberg’s great unfinished opera Moses und Aron is being put on in a lavish production in Paris. It was broadcast on the French-German cultural channel Arte last weekend. Not only is the avant-garde twelve-tone music a challenge for the listener, but the ideas are too. The opera is based on the traditional Biblical story of Moses and Aaron leading the Israelites out of Egypt, but Schönberg, who wrote his own libretto, put a troubling twist of his own on the story, which is of continuing relevance to our society today.

Throughout the opera, Moses speaks, while Aaron sings. Moses has the vision from God, but he is tongue-tied (tradition says he had a speech impediment) and unable to express himself as a public orator. Fortunately, his brother Aaron is able to fill in for him and shows himself a very gifted speaker, the kind who today would be called “inspirational”. The trouble is that Aaron never really understands his brother’s vision of a God unlike any other, who cannot be visualized or described in human terms. Aaron is willing to compromise with the desire of the people for something they can grasp, love, have faith in. He even goes so far as to make them a Golden Calf to worship when Moses is away for 40 days on the mountain and they grow restless and anxious because nothing seems to be happening. In the end, sick at heart, Moses falls to his knees on the empty stage and exclaims “O Wort, Wort, das mir fehlt” – “oh word, word that I lack!”

In a way, Moses and Aaron might be seen as two sides of the same person. Schönberg seems to be telling us: if you have a vision and give it to the people, hoping to start a movement, you may be successful, but in the end you will be the victim of your own success, for your message will be watered down and distorted, and the movement will develop a life of its own that betrays what you originally intended.

Our age is an age of communication. “Effective communication” is regarded as the supreme skill. But ours is also the age of the negative side of communication – we have learned the destructive effects of propaganda, political sloganeering and slick advertising, and the way they debase language. With his opera written in more troubled times than now, Schönberg puts us once again before the age-old dilemma: uncommunicable truth, or communication that takes liberties with the truth for the purpose of getting the message across.