Sunday, May 30, 2010

On Being Forced to Leave the Resort: Me and Moses and Aron

On one side stands Moses, conveying the divine truth and will--a truth and will as unequivocal as their conceiver. On the other side stands Moses' brother, Aaron, leading a people's endeavor to approach that very truth and that very will with the tools of their human selves--a subjective mind with which to seek, an equivocal heart with which to feel, and actions subject to the circumstances under which they are undertaken. Or some such thing!

Moses--visionary prophet. Aaron--the practical leader. There were bound to be misunderstandings between the brothers, resulting from Aaron's limited ability to understand his brother's abstract conceptions.

The story is told that on one occasion Aaron was called to task by the Higher Authorities, who inquired of Aaron:

"Why did you tell us all those things about your brother? It was all useless information.  That's not him at all.  At least Miriam gave us useful information."

Aaron had mistaken his subjective, equivocal impression of his brother, Moses, for objective, absolute truth.  Aaron had grossly distorted the man Moses -- his character and his life history -- in his representations about his brother.

Actually, I made up that story.  The tale is what Claire Hirshfield would call apocryphal: "If it didn't happen, it should have!"

Some things never actually happened, but they should have.  Dennis Race never actually spoke to Gertrude Ticho and learned that I was severely disturbed. But he should have.  It was about time that somebody recognized me for the nut case that I actually am!

Be that as it may.

All of this brings me to the subject of this post: Schoenberg's opera Moses and Aaron. 

Moses und Aron is a three-act opera by Arnold Schoenberg with the third act unfinished. The German libretto was by the composer after the Book of Exodus.  Moses und Aron has its roots in Schoenberg's earlier agitprop play, Der biblische Weg (The Biblical Way, 1926–27), which represents a response in dramatic form to the growing anti-Jewish movements in the German-speaking world after 1848 and a deeply personal expression of his own "Jewish identity" crisis. The latter began with a face-to-face encounter with anti-Semitic agitation at Mattsee, near Salzburg, during the summer of 1921, when he was forced to leave the resort because he was a Jew, although he actually converted to Protestantism in 1898. It was a traumatic experience to which Schoenberg would frequently refer, and of which a first mention appears in a letter addressed to Kandinsky (April 1923): "I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me this year, and I shall never forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but that I am a Jew."

Schoenberg's statement echoed that of Mahler, a convert to Catholicism, some years earlier: "I am thrice homeless: as a Bohemian among Austrians, as an Austrian among the Germans, and as a Jew throughout the entire world. I am an intruder everywhere, welcome nowhere."

The Mattsee experience was destined to change the course of Schoenberg's life and to influence his musical creativity, leading him first to write Der Biblische Weg, in which the central protagonist Max Aruns (Moses-Aaron) is partially modelled on Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism; then, to proclaim in Moses und Aron his uncompromising monotheistic creed; and finally, upon his official return to Judaism in 1933, to embark for more than a decade on a relentless mission to save European Jewry from impending doom. Der Biblische Weg should be considered as both a personal and political play. Moses, at the center of the biblical Exodus story had become from the time of Heine to that of Herzl and Schoenberg, the ideal incarnation of a national and spiritual redeemer.

From the sketchy outline of the play (1926) to its final version (1927) and to the inception of Moses und Aron as an oratorio (1928) and then into an opera, it was composed between 1930 and 1932. Despite its unfinished status it is widely regarded as Schoenberg's master work.

The opera has also been interpreted as representing the conflict between the visionary artist (Moses/Schoenberg/atonality) and the mundane, concrete world (as embodied by the tradition-bound Aron/tonality).

After settling in the United States, Schoenberg was interviewed at his residence in Brentwood, California by two officers of the Justice Department.  The officers inquired: "What was your motivation in writing Moses and Aron?  Just how many years ago was it that you were forced to leave the resort?"

Speaking literally and metaphorcally, some people just never forget about the experience of being forced to leave the resort.

To close with a bit of Holocaust humor (the genre is meager, as you can imagine):

Many listeners still cannot stand Schoenberg. When the Metropolitan Opera presented his "Moses und Aron," in 1999, an elderly woman was heard to mutter, "I survived Auschwitz—I don't have to sit through this."


Gary Freedman said...

This is, after all, Memorial Day weekend: the beginning of the season for resorts!

Gary Freedman said...

Whoever accused the Nazis of not having a sense of humor?

"The Nazis fooled the German Red Cross, and wealthy Austrian and German Jews into believing that the concentration camp at Thereisenstadt was actually a resort, and lovely spa with all kinds of cultural activities, theaters, coffee houses, and beguiled thousands of Europe's elderly Jews into actually paying a fee to live in this Paradise. Brochures were produced by the Nazis, depicting Theresienstadt as a health resort, a spa, located on a beautiful river, with acres of fruit trees, rolling hills and lovely summers. Hundreds of wealthy German and Austrian Jews fell for the propaganda, and requested an apartment with a view. They were assured that they would love the place."

Gary Freedman said...

Hadassah Lieberman (born Mar. 28, 1948) is the wife of United States Senator Joseph Lieberman (ID - CT). She is a well known social activist.

She was born Hadassah Freilich in a refugee camp in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Her parents were both Holocaust survivors. Her father was Samuel Freilich a lawyer and rabbi from Munk√°cs, in the Carpathian Ruthenia (now Mukachevo in Ukraine. Her mother, Ella (Wieder) Freilich, had survived both Auschwitz and Dachau. Hadassah was named for her maternal grandmother, who died at Auschwitz.

Samuel Freilich brought his family to the United States in 1949, settling in Gardner, Massachusetts, where he was the rabbi of Congregation Ohave Shalom.

Gary Freedman said...

I find Moses und Aron to be an overwhelmingly passionate piece. I have always been intrigued by the fact that Schoenberg's atonal music retains the passion of his early tonal pieces.

Schoenberg's transformation as a composer reminds me of Ronald Reagan's (and Joe Lieberman's?) transformation as a politican: from passionate liberal to passionate conservative.

By the way, you'll find that very little in life does not have a double meaning. Did I tell you? I'm looking forward to my trip to Atlantic City in July. Ju-ly! I have to telephone my sister about that. Oy veh!

Gary Freedman said...

How's this for loose associations?

Hadassah - Esther - Estelle! (My sister's name is Estelle.)