Schönberg´s Moses and Aron.

Moses and Aron. Arnold Schönberg. Komische Oper. 7.7.2015.

On the tenth anniversary of the London tube and bus bombings carried out by people convinced they knew what God wanted.

The principles on which twelve tone music is made are generally beyond my ken, except in so far as each of the twelve musical tones must be used in turn, but in any order, before any single one can be used again. Just like numbers in Suduko my companion exclaims delighted. So now I know a single thing about Suduko too. The effect of this, as a musician has since explained to me, is that music is then produced which, because it only accidentally and occasionally resembles a ´normal´ melody or harmony, we hear but cannot then hang on to. Nobody´s going to be caught whistling Schönburg as they walk through the underground. At the post performance round table discussion people confessed, and there was something of the guilty acknowledgement that they were accustomed to trying to defile the sacred with the mundane, that they´d tried but failed to listen to this music at home, or through the mobile as they jogged. It was generally agreed that the music must be seen performed live to make sense, that is to say, to be tolerable, and somehow deeply moving, in its disorientating strangeness. A formulaically produced music, resisting both ´normal´ musical means of communication and reproduction.

Which fits the central theme of Moses and Aron, that people should not make attempts to ´reproduce´ God because they are inevitably idolatrous. By analogy, the music itself is an attempt, logically and inevitably doomed, to cease to exist at the moment of its performance. It’s a kind of musical stuttering into a silence haunted by the unavoidable failure of previous attempts to speak as if humans could know God. Moses, whose essential characteristic is his stuttering and struggling to speak, wide eyed and mouth wide open, blasted by his sense of God, can only reiterate the all powerful, ever present, all knowing nature of a God of absolutes incommensurable with human experience. It seems perfectly appropriate that Schönberg was never able to complete the work.

But Moses is also a political leader and knows he must speak. But if he speaks of God he knows it will lead to an idolizing of Him/Her/It/Whatever it is…..and worse a fetishizing of the people who feel they have been chosen to be given special knowledge of (       ), and here I think it was a mistake to, as the production does, reinforce the sense of this being a Jewish story, because the inevitable but potentially disastrous human process of identifying ourselves against others who are not like ´us´ is common to people from football hooligans to the tea party, from chauvinist Buddhists to the CDU. This agonizing dilemma for Moses, which is also Schonberg´s, lends an extraordinary emotional intensity to the music. It as if Schönberg is being dragged back kicking and screaming to face his own sense of God, and his religious inheritance as a Jew, all the time knowing that to speak of this is to court disaster. I am reminded of the times in the New Testament when Jesus having revealed his Nature, through healing for example, asked the person concerned not to speak of it. They usually did anyway, paving his path to, whatever status we may give to his divine ´Mission`, notoriety and personal disaster.

Schönberg seems to me to be saying we are blessed, and cursed with a sense of the divine, but to imagine we can have a personal relationship with (     ) is to drastically understate (his) alienness and our capacity for self-deception.

Into this breach Moses´ brother Aron steps who is perfectly willing to indulge the wonder and awe of the people with their yearning for the inexplicable, the transcendent, with their God shaped hole. Literally conjuring onstage, he´d have no problem, as the Catholic church still doesn´t, with hawking holy bones for adoration around the place. Aron seems like a tarnished representative of organized religion, comfortable with people´s gullibility and unafraid of imposing authority.

But maybe the point where we can take issue with Schönberg´s fears is in his characterizing of the people. Where the possibility of violence, fear and intimidation, that is to say where politics is absent, it may be perfectly possible to speak of (     ) and a sense of whose presence leads not to an individual or group self-aggrandizement, nor to a Thomas Merton like self-loathing, but to a non-coercive sense of acceptance, of there being something, and not nothing, out there, in here, somewhere, as you dash to get the bus to pick the kids up after school or catch the moon rising as you struggle on your crutches to the tube after work. And such moments are not given any less to anyone of us than to mullahs, priests, or rabbis and perhaps far more than to prophets and politicians. And none of us are more chosen than anyone else.


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