Schoenberg vindicated

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Oct 3 17:34:56 MDT 1999

(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

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

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

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

Louis Proyect

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