Schoenberg Vindicated

(This post is dedicated to Henry Liu, who struggles to keep alive the original spirit of the Chinese Revolution)

Prior to attending the Sept. 28th Metropolitan Opera performance of Arnold Schoenberg's "Moses und Aron," my mood was one of antiquarian curiosity. But as the final curtain was descending, I had not only become convinced that I had experienced one of the great musical events in my life, I also promised myself to develop a better understanding of Schoenberg's role in musical history and make his case to the radical public.

Two months ago when I posted on Hanns Eisler, (Schoenberg's student who would join the Communist movement in Germany) Schoenberg seemed to represent everything I detested in art: elitism and empty formalism. But despite his "art for art's sake" stance, Schoenberg has a much complex relationship to the great emancipatory movements of the twentieth century then I would have anticipated. I will describe it after some preliminary notes on the opera and 12-tone compositional techniques.

Most people are probably familiar with the basic outline of the opera's plot from the film "Ten Commandments" which starred right-winger Charlton Heston as Moses and ex-blacklistee Edward G. Robinson as his brother Aaron. Moses is trying to convert the wayward Hebrew tribe to monotheism, but they often lose faith in a god that they can not see, hear or touch. At least the old beliefs included icons of the deities which helped the believer focus his beliefs. Aaron is stuck in the middle. He believes that his brother is on to something and probably has had conversations with the deity. As Aaron is a more skilled communicator, it falls on his shoulders to publicize the new austere "single god" belief to the tribe. In the course of doing so, he frequently adapts to their prejudices, even joining in the worship of the Golden Calf.

The first two acts were completed in 1932, a year before Schoenberg returned to Judaism, prompted by the rise of Nazism. Like many wealthy and educated Jews in Germany and Austria, including Marx himself, Schoenberg's family had embraced Christianity. As early as 1921, Schoenberg recognized that anti-Semitism was a fact of European life. When his family was turned away from an "Aryan-only" resort, despite their Christian identity, he wrote his close friend, the painter Kandinsky, "I have at last learned the lesson that has been forced upon me...and I shall never forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of the race to me), but I am a Jew."

In "Moses und Aron", the Hebrew tribe is played by a chorus, whose vocal navigation of the difficult tone-rows is nothing short of amazing. The role of Moses is performed by bass John Tomlinson in "Sprechtstimme" (song-speech) style, who conveys the torment of the tribal leader with enormous power. His brother Aron is played by Philip Langridge, whose vocal part is in a conventional bel canto tenor genre, suited to his role as communicator to the distrustful masses. Where Moses is gruff and unadorned, Aron is mellifluous and sweet--too much so--which is in line with the dramatic and theological contrast between the two principals.

The first act consists principally of a series of duets between Moses and Aron as they discuss the meaning of the new religion:

Moses: Others live within a people, only in fantasy; but God the almighty exists apart from men.

Aron: O vision of highest fantasy, how glad it is that you've enticed it to form you.

Moses: How can fantasy thus picture the unimaginable?

The second act is dominated by a ballet representation of the worship of the Golden Calf, with arias by secondary cast members and chorales all expressing loss of faith. In keeping with Graham Vick's brilliant postmodern production, the Golden Calf appears to be a rotting carcass with its tongue hanging out, upon which the Hebrews drape gold wristwatches and earrings, etc. The entire cast dresses in modern garb, with Moses and Aron in dark, three-piece business suits, but without neckties. Ron Howell's choreography is worth the price of the opera itself. The ballet of the Golden Calf worshippers is both debased and glorious, whose sexuality is depicted like everything else in this scene: something with a price tag attached.

James Levine's conducting is a real miracle. Although Schoenberg's score is powerful in its own right (more about this momentarily), it is a credit to Levine that the music reaches searing levels of expressiveness. NY Times reviewer Paul Griffiths sums it up:

"the hot, intense sound of one instrument at a time, like a desert horizon against Moses' voice in the opening scene, the luscious Viennese waltzes, the weird tones in the orgy of mandolin, tuned percussion and high woodwinds (a wild leap from E flat clarinet), the tightly contained passion in solos for violin and cello.

"You just have to forget to expect major chords, and listen to what wonderful and meaningful sounds music can make without them. The final orchestra passage--the yelling unison string melody that accompanies Moses' hard self-recognition--makes the taut, sinuous, inevitable line of a whiplash."

The Vienna that Schoenberg grew up in was a lot like the imperial centers of 1999: smug, stifling, provincial, bourgeois, conservative and materialistic. (As I think about the political period we are in, I am more and more convinced that fin-de-siècle Europe is our predecessor and our task is identical: to break through obfuscations about the long-term viability of the capitalist system.) Musicologist and acclaimed pianist Charles Rosen describes the cultural landscape in his monograph on Schoenberg:

"Throughout the nineteenth century, the resistance of the general public to new artistic movements had grown steadily. A fear of what is original and difficult to comprehend is no doubt a constant in history, but the accelerated rate of stylistic change after 1800 and the rapid expansion of the mass public interested in consuming art combined to make the normally difficult relation between artist and public a pathological one. The artist and his public each conceived the other as a threat. The artist’s answer to ideological pressure was one of deliberate provocation, while the public came to believe that a violent response to such provocation was a citizen’s right and even a patriotic duty. A conservative taste in art seemed to many the last defense against anarchy. By the end of the century, the works of poets as different as Mallarmé, Jarry, and George express a powerful contempt for the public, and this contempt veils an even more profound hatred.

"Nowhere was this hatred more open than in Vienna: if the pastime of shocking the bourgeois took on at times a playful aspect in Paris and London, in Vienna it was carried on with a bitter seriousness only occasionally masked by wit. Adolf Loos (with Peter Behrens the greatest of central Europe’s architects of the first decade of the twentieth century) founded a review with the characteristically insulting title 'The Other, a Paper for the Introduction of Western Culture into Austria.'"

Adolf Loos was part of a circle that included his close friend Schoenberg and painter Oscar Kokoschka, a seminal figure in German Expressionist art. In addition, the circle included the left-wing writer Karl Kraus. Kraus was the major theoretical influence on the circle. Walter Benjamin considers Kraus a key 20th century cultural figure, whose technique of "juxtaposition" attempted to express more than the literal meaning of a given text. Kraus deployed this technique to express a general sense of hopelessness that preceded the outbreak of WWI. His journal often reprinted newspaper stories and advertisements from bourgeois sources with little or no comment, their very appearance in that context being itself a statement. What characterized Schoenberg's circle more than anything else was a thoroughgoing rejection of bourgeois cultural values. While this in itself does not coincide with a socialist agenda, it certainly can play a generally subversive role in bourgeois society.

When Schoenberg was an up-and-coming composer in Vienna, the prevailing taste in classical music was exactly what you can hear on commercial classical music stations today sandwiched between Volvo commercials. The war-horses of the classical and romantic era all shared one thing in common, and that was the diatonal major and minor scales. Such music relied not only on familiar harmonies and rhythms, but offered a vast repository of compositional techniques that had a "prefabricated" quality. For example, the finale of a symphony would conform to certain conventions, including a return to the tonic, that not only 'resolved' the composition but left the listening audience with a sense that in some ways all was right in the world.

In the late nineteenth century, composers began to experiment with chromaticism. A chromatic scale makes use of all 12 notes in a scale, including half-tones. If you sit down at a piano and strike any 12 adjacent keys, you will have outlined a chromatic scale. The use of half-tones in a composition lends an unsettled quality because it is difficult to locate the tonic. Although Wagner was the first to make extensive use of chromaticism, it was known to composers from the time of Bach onward, who in particular wrote a Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue for keyboard. With Wagner, it is difficult to discern the harmonic direction of much of Parsifal, for example. The advantage of chromaticism is that it helps to destroy conventional expectations both in the composer and the listener. Wagner had an enormous influence on 20th century composition, even where it might not be expected. For example, Debussy's "Pelleas and Melisande" was intended as a follow-up to Wagner's Parsifal.

Chromaticism also figures heavily in jazz. Duke Ellington emulated Debussy in much of his more formal compositions, including Black and Tan Fantasy. Thelonius Monk was influenced in turn by Ellington. Compositions such as "Round Midnight" and "Crepuscle with Nellie" are heavily chromatic. When Monk finally achieved critical acclaim in the pages of Time Magazine, he was quite rightly compared to Bela Bartok, since the common root of both Bartok and Monk is Richard Wagner.

But Schoenberg was not content to stop here. He went further and developed a completely new approach to harmony that although based on the chromatic scale, broke all ties to previous compositional techniques. The style dictates that one must use all 12 tones in succession, but not use one more than once. This gives 12 tone music not only a dissonant quality, it also accounts for its "pointillistic" quality as each note seems to bear no relationship to another. In 12 tone composition, the emphasis is on color and expressiveness. To describe the technique on paper does not do it justice. I had never really taken it very seriously until "Moses und Aron".

Schoenberg never wrote for the masses. Even his experimentalism was tempered by a desire to be part of the classical mainstream. He hoped that the rigor of the 12 tone style would be seen as in the spirit of Germanic compositions going back to Bach, which all shared a common belief in the importance of the intellectual, if not mathematical, nature of composition. He was disappointed over and over to discover that the musical establishment would not honor him as a continuation of Bach, Beethoven et al.

One of his greatest champions was Theodor Adorno, a founder of the Frankfurt School, who embraced Schoenberg's challenge to the bourgeois cultural order in the pages of "Philosophical Foundations of Modern Music" even as he characterized it as emanating from within bourgeois culture itself. Written in 1941, at the outbreak of WWII, Schoenberg's music appeared to him as the emerging Abstract Expressionists in the United States must have appeared to the Trotskyists gathered around Partisan Review, a symbol of individual protest against a world gone mad. Adorno writes in the final paragraph:

"The inhumanity of art must triumph over the inhumanity of the world for the sake of the humane. Works of art attempt to solve the riddles designed by the world to devour man. The world is a sphynx, the artist is blinded Oedipus, and it is works of art of the type resembling his wise answer which plunged the sphynx into the abyss. Thus all art stands in opposition to mythology. In the elemental 'material' of art, the 'answer'—the only possible and correct answer is ever present, but not yet defined. To give this answer, to express what is there, and to fulfill the commandment of ambiguity through a singularity which has always been present in the commandment, is at the same time the new which extends beyond the old, precisely by virtue of being sufficient to it. For this reason the total seriousness of artistic technique lies in continually designing schemata of the familiar for that which has already existed. This seriousness is today so much greater, since the alienation present in the consistency of artistic technique forms the very substance of the work of art. The shocks of incomprehension, emitted by artistic technique in the age of its meaninglessness, undergo a sudden change. They illuminate the meaningless world. Modern music sacrifices itself to this effort. It has taken upon itself all the darkness and guilt of the world. Its fortune lies in the perception of misfortune; all of its beauty is in denying itself the illusion of beauty. No one wishes to become involved with art—individuals as little as collectives. It dies away unheard, without even an echo. If time crystallizes around that music which has been heard, revealing its radiant quintessence, music which has not been heard falls into empty time like an impotent bullet. Modern music spontaneously aims towards this last experience, evidenced hourly in mechanical music. Modern music sees absolute oblivion as its goal. It is the surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked."

Since Schoenberg never received funding to complete "Moses und Aron," the final act is the second one which ends on a very bleak note. It is not guaranteed that the Hebrews will reach their destiny, nor is it a given that Aron will see the correctness of Moses' monotheism. Adorno's words about a "surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked" would seem to describe Moses' feelings as the curtain drops. It is certain that Schoenberg created the character Moses to reflect his own difficult task. His austere compositional techniques were as foreboding and remote as Moses' God. The masses not only preferred the Golden Calf, they paid no heed to Schoenberg's 12 tone compositions, preferring to listen to war-horses in recital halls as they always had. In "Opera and Politics," John Bokina sums up the difficulties facing both Moses and Schoenberg:

"The Arons of the world—in show business, advertising, and politics—can offer a semblance of emotional and sensual gratification, albeit gratification that imprisons the individual in the status quo and his or her own base nature. The modernist Moses, on the other hand, offers enlightenment and spiritual growth, but only at a cost of emotional and sensual deprivation. Once again the alternatives are posed in the sharpest possible terms. And once again Moses-Schoenberg guarantees his impotence by defending political reason and progress. The second act concludes with the Israelites following the reassuring Aronist pillars—not the ideal of the inconceivable God—into the wasteland. That the Israelites prefer sensuous images is not only an indication of their aesthetic philistinism and political immaturity. It also contains a genuine moment of protest against the rationalist political enlightenment of modernist art, which is purchased at the expense of sensual human happiness."

Eventually Schoenberg, Adorno and Hanns Eisler all ended up in Hollywood to escape death in Nazi concentration camps. Adorno always preferred the high modernist stance of Schoenberg, while the two composers tried to cope with life in the new temple of the Golden Calf. Eisler found it much easier to go through the motions than Schoenberg and cranked out one film score after another, while opening up his home to Hollywood's left-wing for lavish parties.

Schoenberg's refusal to sell out to the film industry is recounted by Anthony Heilbut in "Exiles in Paradise":

"But one had to live. Even Schoenberg, canonized by Adorno for his refusal to yield to public expectations, was forced to instruct American child prodigies, jazz musicians, and movie composers. In 1935, through Salka Viertel’s intercession, he conferred with Irving Thalberg at MGM. Thalberg congratulated him on his 'lovely music.' Schoenberg barked, 'I don’t write lovely music.' He was willing, however, to compose score for the MGM production of The Good Earth. His demands were appropriate but unacceptable. He wanted fifty thousand dollars, and complete control of the soundtrack; the actors were to speak in the same pitch and key he composed (as if Paul Muni and Luise Rainer didn’t have enough difficult playing Chinese peasants!). He later told Viertel 'to compose means to look into the future of the theme.' With his ambition a Schoenberg score could have pointed to a whole new form musical drama in film. In retrospect, it seems cheap at the price."

Attending "Moses und Aron" reminds me of the importance of difficult, experimental art. Adorno was right. In many ways, the only response of a serious artist is to honestly confront the brutal world and offer no pat solutions. In my postings on art and revolution, I tended to look askance at figures like Jackson Pollock and Arnold Schoenberg while embracing the more populist vision of Ben Hecht and Hanns Eisler. I now understand that the role of culture in changing society is much more complex. In the powerful anti-capitalist movement we are trying to assemble, both approaches are necessary. We need art that speaks to the masses. We also need composers like Schoenberg who, like Moses, made their own journey into the wilderness.


Theodor Adorno, "Philosophy of Modern Music," Seabury, 1980

John Bokina, "Opera and Politics," Yale, 1997

Anthony Heilbut, "Exiled in Paradise," U. of Calif., 1997

Charles Rosen, "Arnold Schoenberg," Viking, 1975

Schoenberg, "Moses und Aron," Columbia Records SM2K 48456, Pierre Boulez, conductor

Joan Allen Smith, "Shoenberg and His Circle," Schirmer, 1986