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Arnold Schoenberg continues to be misunderstood

Arnold Schoenberg's grave in Vienna
Arnold Schoenberg's grave in Viennaby Daderot, from Wikipedia (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Because I maintain an RSS feed to the arts reporting on the London Telegraph, I probably read more about the Hay Festival than most American readers do. In general, I tend to gloss over these reports. When they turn to music, however, I figure that they deserve more attention.

Do they really? The more I read about the Hay Festival, the more it reminds me of TED conferences, which are finally beginning to attract some of the ridicule they deserve. It seems as if both of these events share common goal, which is to take on complex issues and deliver them in simplifications that will appeal to the audience. Where such strategies are engaged, however, I defer to the wisdom of H. L. Mencken:

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

When this involves complexity in books, I can keep my peace; but, when it involves a composer like Arnold Schoenberg, I start to bristle.

As fate would have it, the current Hay Festival coincided with a new production of Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron staged by David Pountney for the Welsh National Opera (WNO). This led to Pountney being invited to address the Hay Festival and going on about topics such as Schoenberg’s “musical nationalism” and his “dictatorial character.” This seems to have prompted a modern-dress approach that sets the opera in a world of politics with what appear to be strong overtones of the European Union. What was interesting about Sameer Rahim’s report on Pountney’s Hay talk for the Telegraph is that it said next to nothing about what Schoenberg himself had said about his own opera.

Fortunately, David Lewin showed a bit more respect for the source in his Studies in Music with Text book. He framed Schoenberg’s point of view as an analogy: Moses : God :: Aron : Volk (a German noun that translates literally as “people” but tends to refer to an underlying “cultural spirit”). That analogy then translates into a fundamental opposition between the Ten Commandments (with Moses as the link that connects the word of God to the Israelite “Volk”) and the Golden Calf (which Aron builds for the “Volk” when they get impatient with the amount of time Moses is spending up on Mount Sinai). It is also important to remember that Schoenberg died before he completed this opera. Thus, we get as far as Moses’ wrathful response to the Golden Calf, leading to a third act that was never written.

Having seen Moses und Aron once and listened to several recordings, I will be the first to admit that it is not a simple offering. However, each time I encounter it, more of its substance seems to register with me. As a result, while there is still much that perplexes me, I tend to get annoyed when someone tries to water it down with what appears to be a trivialization for the sake of audience appeal.

On the other hand I was pleased to read the final paragraph of Rahim’s Telegraph article. It turns out that he went to see the opera for himself that past Saturday evening. It turns out that the portrayal of the Israelite “Volk” by the WNO chorus made the deepest impression on him. Through that portrayal he came away with a better understanding of the tension between Moses and Aron than had emerged in his report of the Hay activities. Pountney clearly must have had a hand in Rahim coming away with this impression. It may have even been that Schoenberg’s music helped to underscore that impression.

Rahim thus concluded his article with a clear affirmation that there is never any substitute for being at the actual performance, suggesting (possibly in his own subtle way) that all of that jawboning at Hay amounted to little more than a waste of time, even when the production’s stage director was doing the jawboning!