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Opera Essentials: Schoenberg's Moses und Aron

Our guide to an essential modernist masterpiece.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

23 July 2014 at 3.14pm | 2 Comments

The Story Begins…

The Voice of God commands Moses to lead the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt. Moses, reluctant, argues that he is old and inarticulate. He is assured that his brother Aron will speak on his behalf. But as Aron speaks to the Israelites, he distorts Moses's message of an imperceptible, inconceivable God, using spectacular miracles that win the people round but in fact distance them from God. How can they be made to understand God when He cannot be described?

A Work of Great Faith

Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) was born to a Viennese Jewish family. He converted to Protestantism in 1898, but rising anti-Semitism led him back to Judaism. A crucial moment came in 1921, when he and his family were denied access to an Austrian resort because of his Jewish background. Schoenberg wrote to his friend Wassily Kandinsky 'I have learnt… that I am not a German, not a European, perhaps scarcely even a human being… but I am a Jew.' From then until the end of his life Jewish philosophy and history became increasing forces in his music. Moses und Aron, completed (as much as it would be – see below) in 1932, was Schoenberg’s last significant work before he converted to Judaism and fled Germany and the Nazis for the USA.

A Logical Heart

One of Schoenberg's many musical innovations was serialism, which he first used in 1922. In the 12-tone serialism favoured by Schoenberg and his pupil Anton Webern, the 12 notes of the chromatic scale are arranged into a specific order, called the 'tone row'. The row provides a framework for the music – an equivalent to the more traditional 'diatonic' (e.g. major or minor) scale but allowing the regular use of more of the notes, which Schoenberg termed 'the emancipation of the dissonance'. All of the music of Moses und Aron is related to a single row, either in straightforward use or through a set of specific permutations. Through his mastery of the technique Schoenberg produces an astonishingly rich and diverse sound world, but one that is entirely holistic.

Incomplete or Impossible to Complete?

Schoenberg completed the three-act libretto for Moses und Aron (based on the biblical book Exodus) in 1930, and completed the music for Acts I and II on 10 March 1932. Throughout the rest of his career he spoke often of composing Act III, but he never started it. Only towards the end of his life did he accept he would never finish the opera. An extract from Act II, Der Tanz des goldene Kalb (The dance of the golden calf) was performed in Darmstadt on 2 July 1951; Schoenberg, living in the USA, was informed of its success by telegram. He died 11 days later, never hearing a note of what many regard as his greatest work. The first staged performance of Moses und Aron in 1957 had the text of Act III spoken over an extract from Act I, but now Act III is commonly omitted. Though Schoenberg would not have agreed, the incomplete nature of Act III is widely considered the perfect conclusion for a work of art on the impossibility of fully expressing God.

A Modern Tale

This staging of Moses und Aron by Welsh National Opera is the first in the UK for nearly forty years. Directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito first created their production for Stuttgart Opera in 2003. Anna Viebrock's single set design recalls an assembly room of a contemporary parliament – perhaps the Egyptian parliament during the Arab Spring – filled with people desperate for liberation, but with no direction on how that liberation can be achieved. The unseen film that Aron screens in Act II highlights the troubling use of the media in our times.

Welsh National Opera performs Moses und Aron on the Royal Opera House's main stage 25–26 July 2014. Tickets are still available.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Anne responded on 26 July 2014 at 9:54am Reply

    Last night's performance was a powerful and moving experience. John Tomlinson's Moses was extraordinary. However my enjoyment of the first act was marred by the fact that the surtitles were so faint as to be unreadable. Only after many complaints during the interval was the contrast increased so that we could actually see them. Several operas recently have some extreme contrasts in the stage lighting which affect the visibility of the surtitles. For each production ROH needs to make that sure that functionality of the surtitles is maintained.

    • Ellen West (Head of Creative Studios and Digital Products) responded on 27 July 2014 at 1:14pm

      Thank you for your comment Anne. The complaints were noted by Front of House, and I have passed on your concern about subtitles.

      Best wishes


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