Opera Meets Film: How Straub & Huillet’s ‘Moses und Aron’ Leaves Us to Our Own Interpretative Devices

By John Vandevert

Despite Arnold Schoenberg’s (1874-1951) widespread popularity as one of the most important ‘fathers of serialism’ and the person almost solely responsible for ushering in the age of dodecaphony (12-tone technique), his four operas are largely unknown. Despite this, it was Schoenberg’s fourth opera, “Moses und Aron,” which would transform opera forever. No longer constricted by the indulgent attitudes of Italian bel canto, nor the Verdi/Puccini verismo ideology, nor the Germanic sophistication and Gesamtkunstwerk gravitas à la Wagner, and certainly not lead by the French impressionists and the sultry lethargy of Debussy et co., Schoenberg would make his voice heard within the world of methodological rigor.

Inspired by the complex fugal language of Bach, the structural consciousness of Beethoven, and by the experimental dissonance-liberator Liszt himself, it is through Schoenberg’s four operas that we can hear how the 12-tone “row”—which is a series that features 12 non-repeating notes—can be utilized as the basis for long-form development. Outside of musical aesthetics and fancy theories, Schoenberg’s fourth, and unfinished, opera has a complex backstory replete with xenophobic injustices, religious conversions and conversations, and personal strife, along with a weighty narrative.

All this makes the piece truly worthy of its cinematic adaptation by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 20 years after its first performance in 1954.

Schoenberg’s Opera

Based around the “Book of Exodus,” the second book of the Bible which tells of the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian tyranny, this opera finds itself narratively indebted to three key points. The first is Schoenberg’s previously written one-act opera “Der biblische Weg” (“The Biblical Way”), 1926, which was essentially agitation-propaganda for the late-19th century Austrian Jewish Unity Party, which he had joined upon his return to Judaism from Protestantism. The second point was his xenophobic treatment during a holiday in Mattsee, Austria, in 1921 which left him permanently traumatized. The third and final point which underscores the previous two was the prevailing culture of Germanic antisemitism, instigated by turn of the century notions regarding racial purity, cultural defilement, and national ‘degeneration.’ While we now know such topics to be nothing more than extremist fallacies, in the mid-late 19th century, and later exploited by Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, and many others, these ideologies had become prevailing worldviews. The “Jewish question” was the hot topic of the German-speaking world, and everything from fabricated racial theories about the inherent inequality of humankind, “racial hygiene,” and ethnic eugenics were used as a deflection against the growing problems of poverty, economic insecurity, and increasingly hostile geopolitical relations borne out of the aftermath of the First World War.

In Eastern Europe, Jewish intellectual circles and groups like the General Jewish Labor Bund formed to further the mission of affirming Jewish existence within the increasingly hostile climate of late-19th century Europe. The focus of these secular Jewish social groups was chiefly to update orthodox Judaism and bring its’ theology in-step with the times: instead of running from the problem, attack it head on. The Jewish people belonged in Europe and Russia just as much as every other community. Following Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in the early 1930s, Schoenberg’s “Jewness” would persist as a sore spot and a leech upon his career, first in Berlin and then again in Sydney, Australia, where he was denied a teaching position due to Director Edgar Bainton’s concerns of Schoenberg’s “dangerous tendencies,” which was a poorly-concealed confession of antisemitism.

Against this fraught global backdrop, “Moses and Aron” served both an allegorical and educational purpose. Planned to be an oratorio—a large-scale composition utilizing biblical subject matter—before expanding to become an opera, the work grapples with the reliance of Moses—the most important prophet in Judaism and supposed author of the “Torah”—on Aaron—the older brother of Moses—and his oratorical abilities, as he translates Moses’ communications with God to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The biblical story follows the two brothers’ lives. Moses is raised in Egyptian society while Aaron remains with his native Jewish culture. Flash forwards to the two men’s adulthood, and they join forces to free the Israelites from pharaonic rule and through battles and confrontations, the will of God is revealed and upheld.

In Schoenberg’s rendition this translates to Acts one and two. When Moses goes up Mount Sinai—a site of devotional pilgrimage today thought to be Jabal Mousa, or the “Mountain of Moses,” in eastern Egypt—instead of helping maintain the people’s faith, Aaron instead caves to the will of the people, and allows them to build an idol of a golden calf—an allegory for the pursuit of affluence—to worship instead of the Hebrew god Yahweh. When Moses descends from the peak of Sinai with the Ten Commandments, he becomes enraged, while Aaron denies his involvement. Ordained as God’s prophets, Moses and Aaron were hand selected to maintain the faith of the people. As the story shows, however, they were both ineffective on their own and when they attempted to join forces. As a result they are both barred from entering the land of Canaan, the Biblical home of Abraham and his descendants, found within the modern Levant.

Schoenberg’s Act three somewhat follows the original story’s conclusion, although it diverges a bit to underscore the tension between the brothers and their belief systems: the conflict between people-directed faith versus divine-centered faith. Moses laments at the fact that the people need imagery and idols to understand the innately unutterable words and teachings of God, while Aaron recognizes the need to help the people grow in faith by catering to their needs. In the end, Aaron is thrown into prison on the orders of Moses, and although he is subsequently freed by his brother he dies immediately, leaving Moses’ ideological position the preeminent one: only by physical experience can the Israelites learn to love God, while imagery and other non-physical things will only distract.

It’s easy to see what Schoenberg was referencing here: the dogmatic weaponization of belief, biblical or otherwise, and the tendency of humans to dissolve into factionalism and become an insatiable horde. It is true that he never completed the Third Act, as his application for a Guggenheim grant was denied; though in 2009 Hungarian conductor and composer Zoltán Kocsis would get permission from the Schoenberg estate to do so.

The Film’s Treatment

Made in 1975 by French cinematic team Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, the two-hour film, shot in both Italy and Egypt, is a masterful reinvention of cinematic opera. It throws little curveballs while allowing the opera and its narrative to speak. The perennial issue of regietheater versus werktreue is never more relevant than in how it applies to cinematic opera. Many attempts to wrest creative control from the composer and give it to the director have killed good ideas before.

Here the fundamental discomfort of the music, however, paired with the slow-burn leading to the plot’s climax pairs well with the starkness of the film’s visuals. Shot within ruins and deserts, interwoven with shots of the lush banks of the Nile, the expansive horizon, and the escarpments above Luxor, Straub and Huillet personified the human element within the story. The people, struggling to maintain their faith amidst the barrenness of life and the hardships of the everyday grind, are neither strong enough nor willing enough to supplicate themselves at the behest of a God they have never met. To capture the austere nature of the score and the visceral destitution of the plot, the bulk of the film was shot within the ruins of an amphitheater at Alba Fucens in Abruzzo, Italy: an historic 5th century town founded by Roman Emperor Maximian.

Huillet explained the reasons behind making the film when she stated that it was, despite Schoenberg being European, his realistic encapsulation of the biblical story which warranted the same from the directorial side. As she writes in a post-production journal entry; “we wanted a European country which would be a bridge between Europe and Asia/Africa.” According to the journal entries of both Huillet and Gregory Woods, the German libretto assistant, the entire filming process took about five weeks, meeting with challenges and obstacles of nearly every kind. Singers kept getting sick, access to locations were denied, money was supposedly “lost,” music recordings were difficult to finish, and technical difficulties pushed everyone to the edge of their abilities. Nevertheless, the finished product is incredibly smooth. Woods calls the film a “well-informed concept” where “everything has been planned… leaving the act of filming itself free to be a document of the work that has preceded it.” This is what ‘opera’ films should be: the filmed capture of a highly structured and organized operatic production, using film as a way to deepen the dramaturgy.

A point worth making about this film is the dialectic between singing and world-building. The opera is built around Sprechstimme: expressionist “sung speech,” popularized by Schoenberg in his 1912 song-cycle “Pierrot Lunaire.” Throughout the film there is a tension between the stateliness of Moses—who sings very infrequently—and the singing of Aaron. It can be understood that singing is symbolic for the temptation of life and the indulgence of the material world, while the absence of it is the allegorical connection to God. The chorus, who act as pawns caught between the warring factions of Aaron and Moses, are always singing, establishing them as fully absorbed within the physical world. The duet between the brothers in Act one is a prime example. In this irresolute moment, the brothers argue over praising God and how to convince others to do the same. When they are showing the people the miracles of God, as the chorus break out into cacophonic hysteria, the brothers maintain their singing-Sprechstimme dialectic. This produces a very full sound, but a strange thing also occurs as well. The viewer, cognitively predisposed to favor the beauty of tonality and understandable melodicism, begins to sympathize more with Aaron than with Moses.

It can be said that such a device is purposefully used by Schoenberg in order to highlight the attractiveness of Aaron’s perspective on faith. But it is the way the film intentionally overlooks this, homogenizing the film’s aesthetics in order to refrain from fully endorsing either side, that is truly ingenious. No matter who is singing, no matter the subject matter, the environment and cinematic work stays the same; highlighted by the film’s enigmatic ending. Moses is given an extended monologue where he dispassionately castigates the Israelites for their ‘sins.’ He begins by stating, “To serve, to serve the divine idea, is the purpose of the freedom for which this folk has been chosen.” Their requirement for external manifestations of God to justify their faith, however, has prevented them from true belief.

At the heart of his monologue is this single point: images govern the idea, instead of expressing it. This single theme forms the film’s aesthetic core. Instead of Straub and Huillert holding the viewer’s hand to guide them to meaning, they provide a secularized manifestation of it: it is up to us to interpret what it means. While some could call it Marxist, placing the human experience above the spiritual one, it is incontestable that Schoenberg’s central dialectic of ‘dream versus reality’ was the leading aesthetic. True to his desires, Moses issues his final monologue by himself without music, sternly proclaiming in conclusion, “But even in the wasteland you shall be victorious and achieve the goal: unity with God.” With this final edict, the film cuts to blackness, and we are left wondering if we, the human race, as much now as then, could ever measure up in the eyes of Moses. But should we? Just because the legendary figure of Moses says one thing, do we really need to listen, and is he right after all? What makes him more correct than Aaron, a person as touched by God as his brother? Why should the human race be morally judged in the eyes of a man who may have never lived? I ask not to offend, but these thoughts surrounding freedom, self-autonomy, and the unfortunately radical notion that religion and religious teachings are not law, are awoken by Straub and Huillert’s cinematic interpretation of Schoenberg’s opera.

Straub and Huillert’s cinematic take on Schoenberg’s unfinished fourth opera, “Moses und Aron,” heralded as one of his greatest works, personifies the conflicting realities and internal dynamics of belief, blind faith, devotion to an idea, and the willingness of some to sacrifice everything in the pursuit of perfection. Whether or not the juxtaposition of the Italian ruins against the flowing Nile and the singing of Aaron and the Israelites against the pontifical Sprechstimme of Moses actually reads as Schoenberg’s retaliation against the anti-Semitism of his time is up for debate. What is important is the discomfort that we feel at the lack of coherent resolution, both musically and narratively. Aaron dies while Moses remains stoic in the face of his death.

Throughout, cinematically and musically, little is insinuated. The audience is left to try and determine what was being implied on their own. Perhaps that is the most startling part of the entire film: outside of the music and dramaturgy, there is little for us to feed upon. We are left alone in the desert to fend for ourselves, accompanied by only our minds and the divine. Both Schoenberg, Straub, and Huillert pose the same question: are we actually free, and how do we even define freedom?


Opera Meets Film