32. Moses meets Aaron in Waterland
Written by Arnold Schoenberg
Performed by The Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra
From the CD Moses Und Aron (Berlin Classics, Germany 1978)



This people is chosen,
before all peoples,
To be the people of the only God,
So that they know him
and dedicate themselves to him alone.
Also they will undergo all trials
that have in millennia
ever come to be conceived.
And this I promise you:
I shall conduct you forward
to where you will be with the infinite one
and to all the peoples you will be a model.


On November 9 1938, a communiqué from the head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller, arrived at every Gestapo office in Adolf Hitler’s Reich: ‘Actions against Jews, especially against their synagogues, will take place throughout the Reich shortly. […] Should Jews in possession of weapons be encountered in the course of the action, the sharpest measures are to be taken.’

Over the next two days thousands of Jewish homes and businesses were ransacked, two hundred synagogues were destroyed, 91 Jews were murdered and between 25,000 to 30,000 were arrested and deported to concentration camps.

Kristallnacht aka the November pogrom aka the Night of Broken Glass was the beginning of a programme whose aim was the systematic eradication of the Jewish people.

Those who could, left as quickly as possible. Some, like Arnold Schoenberg had been forced to take flight as early as 1933. But unlike most Jews, Schoenberg was seriously thinking of returning to Germany – while Hitler was still in power.

Schoenberg was born in Vienna in 1874 into a non-practising Jewish family. During this period the German-speaking world was undergoing a transition from a period of political and cultural freedom for Jews, to which Jews responded by becoming increasingly assimilated, to a new era of genocidal anti Semitism. Schoenberg became a Christian in 1898.

By the early 20th century German anti Semitism was pushing back the gains made by Jews during the 19th century. In 1921 Schoenberg and his family were refused entry to Mattsee, the Austrian resort where the Schoenbergs had their holiday home: the resort was now reserved for Aryans only.

This new climate, of which this incident was emblematic, initiated Schoenberg’s return to Judaism. Schoenberg was already considered something of an outlaw figure: the review of the first performance of his String Quartet No. 2 was featured in the crime section of the New Vienna Daily of December 22, 1908. He was reviled for his music, but this was different – this was personal. He wrote to his friend, the artist Wassily Kandinsky: ‘I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me during this year, and I shall not ever forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed not perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but I am a Jew.’ From this period onward, Jewish themes dominated his art, peaking with the opera Moses und Aron, Schoenberg’s most ambitious and critically lauded work.

Schoenberg began work on Moses Und Aron in 1930 and finished it on March 10, 1932. It was based on the book of Exodus and the journey of Moses and his people to Canaan. Hitler had been Chancellor for two months. In April 1933 the Nazi’s Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was passed, making it illegal for Jews to hold public posts. Knowing he would soon be sacked, if not killed, Schoenberg quit his job as professor of composition at the Berlin Academy, and left Germany.

This process of exclusion and discrimination must have been a terrible, traumatic blow, especially considering Schoenberg viewed himself and his music as the divinely ordained representatives of a lineage of genius that included Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven, as well as Mahler, who was Jewish, and Richard Wagner, who hated Jews. Ever the nationalist, Schoenberg, who unreservedly supported Germany during the First World War, believed his dodecaphonic technique would guarantee Germany’s cultural and sonic centrality in the 20th century. In exile in Paris he returned, officially, to being a Jew, and became a one-man activist for the mass migration of Jews out of Europe to a new homeland. And then he moved to America.

Schoenberg’s experience of anti Semitism propelled him from being an assimilated Jew into becoming a political and cultural advocate of a Judaism that reads like a plan of action for the formation of the State of Israel a decade before Israel was granted national status. Transferring his nationalism from Germany to his new-found Jewish identity, and exchanging his ideas about the superiority of the German speaking world for a new set of ideas about Jewish superiority, Schoenberg dedicated his music and writing to advocating the creation of a Jewish state.

In America he immediately set himself the task of organising what he called a Jewish Unity Party, a ‘nationalistic chauvinistic’ movement which was to have been made up of Jews from all over the world, and whose idea was to work with the American and German governments for the exodus of its Jewish populations to a yet to be identified homeland. Maybe Uganda, or maybe Palestine: Here is a quote from Schoenberg’s 1937 notebooks, which we found in Patrick Zuk’s text What was Modernism? Part 2, in the Journal of Music in Ireland: ‘Every religious man, who believes in the idea of the Lords elected people, also believes in the ownership of the promised land. But we know: These our [fore-] fathers […] did not get this land for nothing. They had to fulfil the duty of every nation, to conquer it, to fight for it, to fertilise the soil with their blood. There is no other way in the history of mankind, than that one. Never in history could freedom be bought less expensive. Never in history a people got a country by the generosity of other people….’ Schoenberg believed the Jewish presence in Palestine was as divinely ordained as his own musical talent, as transcendentally sanctioned as the German lineage of musical innovators he was once so eager to join.

If Schoenberg’s ideas are somewhat reminiscent of the thinking of Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, that may be because Schoenberg thought very highly of Herzl – the protagonist of Schoenberg’s earlier play, The Way of the Bible, completed in1927, was modelled on a mixture of Herzl, Moses, and Schoenberg himself; Schoenberg regarded himself as something of a modern day Moses. Writing about The Way of the Bible, Zuk tells us that at the heart of the piece and its far more successful follow up Moses Und Aron is an idea of the role of military power in Schoenberg’s vision of the state of Israel: ‘A state without might is not a state’, as he remarks in one of his notebook entries. Elsewhere, he bluntly states his belief that attack is the best form of defence, and that while reasons can always be found to justify an attack, ‘if necessary one can do without reasons’. The work, Zuk writes, brings inescapably to mind the mass sporting events that were to be organised by the various fascist youth movements in Europe under Hitler and Mussolini. And continuing the association with fascism, we find this remark from Schoenberg, quoted in Zuk, about the absolute nature of power and the limits democracy: ‘Democracy for me has always meant one thing: that in it I could never even succeed in making my will known, let alone asserting it […] Power is right, and power is law […] and such law must neither be explained, nor substantiated’.

In 1933 Schoenberg drafted a manifesto titled A four Point Program for Jewry, with which Herzl may well have found common cause: the idea was that Schoenberg would orchestrate the migration of four million Jews to a land of their own. The text was finished in California in 1938 and was intended to inaugurate Schoenberg’s vision of a new Israel.

Then came Kristalnacht and its expression of Hitler’s preference for the elimination rather than the dispersal of Jews. Schoenberg would have to wait ten years for the creation of the Israel he longed for. In the meantime he would act as a centre of gravity for other exiled Jewish composers and couples, who may or may not have shared his ideas about the superiority of the Jews, but were nonetheless charmed and inspired by his musical achievements, much like Eric and Gertrude Zeisl, who befriended him briefly in his final years. Here is Gertrude Zeisl, describing their encounter in the late 1940s with an ailing Schoenberg: ‘Eric had a recommendation by Hans Eisler [to become a student of Schoenberg], but he didn’t dare to come to him since he couldn’t pay, and we didn’t want to contact him just like this, you know. He was too shy for that. And so we met him that evening, and he was fascinating. He made on me the impression of a Leiden Flasche, something that all the time gives electric shocks. The sparks were flying all the time. And it made a great impression on Eric, and at one time Eric asked him why did he make a four-part double canon when it can’t be heard? And he said, ‘That is for the satisfaction of the inner logic.’

Arnold Schoenberg died in California in 1953.


The History Place – World War II in Europe


Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, by Aaron Tugendhaft humanities.uchicago.edu/humanities/jsjournal/tugendhaft.html

What was Modernism? Part 2, by Patrick Zuk, Journal of Music in Ireland Nov/Dec 2004: Volume 4, Number 6 http://www.thejmi.com/article/268

Arnold Schoenberg – Music during the Holocaust

Eric Zeisl oral history transcript: his life and music, by Malcolm S Cole (1978)

At last, the promised land? By Alexander Coleman. Review of Moses und Aron by Arnold Schoenberg, at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, May 1999

NB: Footnotes 9, 11, 17: Michael Mäckelmann, quoted in What was Modernism Part 2, by Patrick Zuk, Journal of Music in Ireland, Nov/Dec 2004: Volume 4, Number 6

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