Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Music and Philosophy conference (II): Artistic representation in Schoenberg's 'Moses und Aron'

(Below is my own brief paper given at the aforementioned conference. For anyone interested, a much fuller, more extensive version, originally published in Music and Letters, may be downloaded here.)

Schoenberg always conceived of his musical and artistic development as a journey: more an ongoing search for faith than following a trustworthy map. In 1909, he wrote to Busoni that interpretation of his recent compositions demanded ‘belief and conviction’. They could only be played by ‘someone, who like yourself, takes the side of all who seek’. Such mystical seeking after faith might seem to have been outmoded by the more obvious constructivism of his later works, but little is ever outmoded in Schoenberg. Instead, the dialectic becomes more complicated as the search becomes more intense, the journey more arduous. Faith and organisation both oppose and necessitate one another.

I shall look specifically at Schoenberg’s opera, Moses und Aron. Written between 1927 and 1932, Moses started life as an oratorio text, then was transformed into an opera libretto. Notwithstanding Schoenberg’s continual insistence upon his intention of completion, the work remained unfinished, his only music for the third act amounting to a few sketches. Only the first two acts of the work are usually performed, although the composer sanctioned the possibility of presenting the final act in spoken form.

A preceding spoken, almost agitprop, Zionist drama, Der biblische Weg (‘The Biblical Way’), deals with more obviously contemporaneous political issues, yet at its end returns to religious mysticism. When its hero, Max Aruns lies dying, he recognises his hubris, addressing God thus:

Lord, thou hast smitten me. Thus I have brought it upon myself. Thus [his antagonist, David] Asseino was right, when he accused me of being presumptuous, of wanting to be Moses and Aron in one person. Thus I have betrayed the Idea … I am dying, but I feel that thou wilt allow the Idea to survive. And I shall die in peace, for I know that thou wilt always provide our nation with men ready to offer their lives for this concept of the one and only, eternal, invisible, and unimaginable God. (dies)
Politics seem to have brought us back to the necessity of theology, a necessity upon which Schoenberg himself had earlier insisted, in works such as his – again – unfinished oratorio, Die Jakobsleiter (‘Jacob’s Ladder’). Schoenberg would explicitly ‘follow on’ from Aruns’s words in Moses und Aron, for they are the first words of his opera. Having flirted with spoken drama, Schoenberg wished to reintroduce music. Partly this is a product of Schoenberg being first and foremost a composer; yet music for him also vouchsafed the possibility of remaining steadfast to the Idea or imperative of sacrificing one’s life in more than a political sense, to an unimaginable God. The more ‘difficult’ Schoenberg’s music became for the public – or so, at least the public believed, for often it disdained actually to listen to the music – the more absolute became the necessity for Schoenberg to express himself musically. This creative dilemma is not only akin to but also in some sense an historical representation of the original impossibility of Creation. For God, the Unrepresentable, commands His own representation. Might ‘spiritual’ or metaphysical music actually become both more specific and more abstract than the signification of mere words, let alone the easy seduction of all-too-material images?

Every bar in Moses, every note even, is derived from the initial twelve-note-row, just as everything ultimately must come from the Eternal One. As Webern put it, ‘To develop everything … from one principal idea! That’s the strongest unity… But in what form? That’s where art comes in!’ Law and creation are two sides of the same coin; yet, is it given to man to create? It seems that the astonishing variety of expression, from the hushed tones of the Burning Bush to the depravity of the Golden Calf Orgy, could only come forth from such strict organisation. Such, then, is the Unity of Creation. Only through this increasingly draconian system can autonomy be maintained. The row, however, is not employed thematically. Indeed, like God Himself, it is ever present in its ordering capacity but rarely heard ‘whole’. The ability to partition notes between different voices had granted Schoenberg’s twelve-note technique not only the requisite initial unity but also creative variety. As the row moved into the compositional – and auditory – background, its grip could be exerted over greater stretches of music. In Moses, it is not until the second scene that the row is presented in linear fashion in a single voice, and this is upon the appearance of Aron, who wishes to represent God’s message in order to aid popular understanding, perhaps suggesting something idolatrous about thematic understanding or employment of a row.

There is already, then, a problem of representation, which will only be intensified as the work proceeds. Adorno would summarise the problem of using what seem to be autonomous musical structures, which yet remain the product of subjective intention:

If the text creates the theological scandal of speaking of the One God as the idea [Gedanken], then this is a scandal that is duplicated in the texture of the music, though rendered almost unrecognisable by the power of the art. The absolute which this music sets out to make real, without any sleight of hand, it achieves as its own idea of itself: it is itself an image of something about images – the very last thing the story wanted.
Schoenberg at the opening comes perilously close to representing God, at least musically, although the abstract ‘Voice’ – in fact, a chorus and six solo voices – does not appear on stage. Indeed, for that brief introduction prior to the curtain’s rise, we have pure song, set to the vowel ‘O’ rather than human language. The energy of the opening wordless chords may be understood to represent God’s own self, yet as soon as the human world comes into its presence, the chordal singing sonority of the six-voice choir is combined with a rustling Sprechstimme choir not heard before. Music, it seems, may permit a divine presence that could never be staged, yet we must always be on our guard against a false divinity. And on what grounds can we judge?

From the moment of human involvement, signalled by Moses’ spoken voice, an unbridgeable chasm opens between spoken truth, Moses’ Sprechstimme, and Aron’s song. Moreover, even were Moses somehow to acquire the ability to express himself, he could still never return to this opening realm of spirit, of wordless or uninterpretable divine immediacy. For God to be represented and for the Idea of God to be interpreted, would turn them into a god and idea – both in lower case – unworthy of representation or interpretation. Likewise, were God swayed by sacrifice, as Aron considers possible, then that would render Him a particular, tribal god. The climactic orgy round the Golden Calf therefore must end in the tragedy of destruction, suicide, and ultimate nihilistic exhaustion. God is unimaginable in the literal sense of it being impossible to make Him into an image. Were the Israelites to succeed in seeing Him, He would no longer be their God.

Yet Moses’ inability to express his thought is as much a cause for despair as the straying of his people. He does not even appear always to be right. Aron points out to him that the Tables of the Law are ‘images also, just part of the whole idea’; to acquiesce to representation is but to ‘yield before necessity’. Likewise, Aron is quite right to argue that the pillars of cloud and fire, which Moses, in a startling transformation of the Biblical narrative, condemns as idolatrous images (Götzenbilder), are actually sent by God: ‘The Eternal One shows not Himself, but the way to Himself.’ He shows the way, as opposed to the Christian understanding in which He is the Way. As Adorno pointed out, the only way in which the Mosaic prohibition can be dramatised is through changes in the text. This would not usually matter, but ‘where the subject matter dons the authority of a sacred text, it verges on heresy.’

That accusation of heresy reminds us that Schoenberg had a Christian as well as a Jewish heritage. Never one to make life easy for himself, he had converted in the Vienna of 1898 not, like Mahler, to Roman Catholicism, but to Lutheranism; the Lutheran Bible – I have seen his annotated library edition – would be a constant companion upon his journey. The great controversy over the Second Commandment, involving Luther’s claim that it applied only to pagans, not to Christians, and its subsequent ejection from the list of ten, is of importance here, the relevant passage from Exodus making uncomfortable reading for a Christian artist:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.
Reformation controversy over iconoclasm fed into the classical German concept of self-cultivation or Bildung, the very word incorporating Bild, or ‘image’. That was the basis upon which Jewish emancipation had proceeded, connecting individual (Kantian) autonomy and the universality of humanism, just as the political right began to see community as based upon ties of blood.

If humanism had failed, Schoenberg connected that, drawing upon his Lutheran and Jewish heritages, with the hubris of representation. Music had traditionally been considered imageless and therefore exempt from the Bildverbot; Romantic and post-Romantic dreams of artistic unity rendered this exemption more problematical. His conception of what was forbidden is expressed in very broad terms in the text (his own) to the first stanza of the chorus, Op. 27 no.2 (1925):

Thou shalt not fashion thyself an image!
For an image limits,
demarcates, grasps,
what should remain undemarcated and unrepresented.
The opera’s status as a work about itself, about the impossibility, even blasphemy, of music-drama not only shines through, but deals the very concept of the artwork a savage blow. Moses’ final lament is ‘O word, thou word that I lack!’ yet his lament is not sung, but spoken. It is song rather than words that in one sense at least he lacks. Such is the price paid for truth; no one will or even can listen. Moses would be more God-like than God and predictably fails. The state of divinity, lying beyond the Kantian division of noumenon and phenomenon is unknowable to us, even to Moses – indeed, one might suggest, particularly to Moses with his one-sided rigidity. God knows, should we dare speculate about His Idea, that the communicative strategy of Aron or something similar is necessary.

Aron’s error lies not so much in the attempt to communicate to a people on the verge of revolt but in communicating through the old gods, who would urge him – and Schoenberg – to complete their work. A little æsthetic, political, or religious compromise seems a price worth paying to avoid absolute rupture; after all, perfection is divine, not mortal. Aron is seduced into seducing; his representation brings him perilously close as Leader – Führer, one might say – to becoming the object of representation. The music surrounding the Golden Calf, rigorously dodecaphonic though it be, seems too seductive, too comprehensible – at least when judged by the stringency of the Schoenbergian Idea. Schoenberg appears to be perpetrating the sin of which George Bernard Shaw accused Wagner in Götterdämmerung, of succumbing to grand opera; and yet, to dramatise the opposition between Moses and Aron he could hardly do otherwise.

Moses’ Idea appears truer than the all-too-easy bel canto simplifications of Aron, yet if it cannot be expressed truthfully, how can Moses bear witness, how can he lead his people? It is hardly surprising that they have turned away. As the Chorus laments during the Interlude between the two acts, ‘Abandoned are we! Where is his God? Where is the Eternal One? Where is Moses?’ The final words of Act II, and therefore the final words set to music, render this antinomy painfully clear:

Unrepresentable God!
Inexpressible Idea of many meanings,
wilt thou permit this explanation?
Shall Aron, my mouth, fashion this image?
Thus, I have fashioned an image too, false,
as an image can only be!
Thus, I am defeated!
Thus, everything I believed before was madness,
and can and must not be voiced!
O word, thou word that I lack!

Moreover, the rupture is musical as well as verbal. A long F-sharp violin unison builds to a fortissimo and then subsides into silence. Such unity is by now perhaps the only way one might musically represent God; the textural richness of the God heard in the Burning Bush would, paradoxically, seem diffuse and unmediated: negative dialectics indeed. Beyond the F-sharp does there lie God, nothing, or the unity of God and nothingness? We need to know, yet cannot.

Now generalisations about modernism are as elusive – as useless? – as generalisations about Romanticism, but the belief that a work’s æsthetic should be derived from its structural integrity, rather than from its surface characteristics and ornamentation, is a sound claimant to the title of fundamental principle. Always the Idea, one might say. It is no coincidence that Schoenberg had belonged to the Vienna Circle of Karl Kraus and Adolf Loos, for whom rejection of ornament was as much an ethical as an æsthetic principle. Loos indeed had branded ornament a crime in 1908, the year of Schoenberg’s break with tonality.

Schoenberg’s refusal to separate style and idea evinces a stand against idolatry, a Platonic stand against the illusory retreat into a world of appearances. However, Schoenberg’s imperative is not only negative. That Op. 27 no.2 chorus ends not with the first stanza’s Bildverbot but with a positive commandment, its necessity or ‘must’ twice reiterated: ‘Thou must believe in the Spirit! … Thou must, Chosen one, must, to remain so [chosen]!’ This thought, which harks back to Die Jakobsleiter, to Mahler’s Second Symphony, suggests that Jewish mystical belief might yet salvage the German tradition, with its punishing yet creative dialectic between freedom and organisation, whose burden and privilege Schoenberg felt so keenly. For the goal, however unattainable, is a higher form of spiritual awareness, in which the Idea may perhaps yet be perceived: a metaphysical Promised Land, following years, perhaps an eternity, of wandering in the Wilderness. An ‘Unrepresentable God,’ in the words of Schoenberg’s own libretto, is also ‘the inexpressible Idea of many meanings’.


Théo Bélaud said...

I do agree quite a lot with the conclusion, although my hypothesis here goes somehow further : I believe that in context Schoenberg theory and Style and Idea an other works has to be seen as reactionnary in the sense of conservation by technical innovation. The main point of Schoenberg in his commentary on composers who lived before him has to do with abstraction and certain idea of degree of abstraction as a discriminative criteria in aesthetic judgement.In this sense, I agree with the idea of a contradiction between structure and surface, form and ornementation, or something like this, but one could see the distinction betwwen form as a and end and form as a mean to an end, the end being a non-musical idea, "idea" in a completely different sense from what Schoenberg tries do define in his Harmonielehre. Basically, a concept, or a conceptual system, something that in relation to music can easily become extremely trivial. One could also speak about a kind of dichotomy between abstract/logical forms and literary/natural language forms.

My opinion is that Schoenberg was sick as Kraus especially was, with the nevrotic desire for conceptual crisis in Germany and even more Austria at the beginnig of the XXth century, and he saw it as a danger to the perpetuation of german art, as he saw the expansion of the so-called national rises the same way. I strongly believe the jewish point should be understood in relation with this issues too.

Théo Bélaud said...

What is actually the capital "C" of Vienne Circle supposed to mean ? Does it stands for a opposition with the legitimate Vienna Circle (whose members opinions about musical modernism were quite various ?).

Mark Berry said...

Re the Vienna circle/Circle, I think I may have been usurping the title from the ghastly logical positivists. I fear I merely came across unclearly.

I agree about the strong streak of conservatism, though I am not sure that it is reactionary. One might say the latter about Stravinsky, save for the fact that the Baroque to which he polemically claimed to wish to return never existed in the first place. But Schoenberg wished to conserve, at least in part, and to develop something that still existed. It is interesting that, in a way, the more one stresses Brahms the Progressive, the more one stresses Schoenberg's conservatism or at least traditionalism. (It is no coincidence that Boulez, for instance, has tended to disdain Brahms and much of the twelve-note Schoenberg.) Yet one can doubtless place too much emphasis on that; this is the composer of 'Erwartung' after all...