Saturday, March 10, 2007

Haiku Week, Day 3

Flames dancing on sand
God’s voice, madness or mirage?
Same thing in the end.

Since yesterday’s post partially involved me poking fun at avant-garde music, I thought I’d show I’m not a complete Philistine by mentioning that I really like Moses und Aron, an unfinished modern opera by Schoenberg that I recently acquired. The music is very atonal and strange, and the opera’s subject is a tough one to wrestle with, but I definitely like it.

The opera is about Moses (obviously) and how the Burning Bush, when it’s giving him his mission, suggests that his brother Aron be his mouthpiece. The opera’s Moses is a real puritan, and knows that his God can’t be portrayed in pictures or described fully in words. So the paradox of trying to convert the Hebrews to an invisible God he can’t talk about without diluting the message really messes with his mind. His brother Aron, on the other hand, has no trouble giving the people what they want, via magic tricks and fancy speeches (well, singing), and eventually he and they are worshipping the Golden Calf while Moses is away.

Moses comes down from Mount Sinai tablets in hand, furiously confronts Aron, and when Aron points out that the Ten Commandments are also nothing more than a graven image themselves, Moses smashes them in frustration and cries out “O Wort, du Wort, das mir fehlt!”, which is more or less “O word, you word I lack!” He can’t figure out how to convey his message, and the opera cuts off there, unfinished after the end of Act II.

The compelling thing about this words-versus-ideals version of the Moses story for me is that it’s such a strange mix of old and modern concepts, and a weird jumble of ideas which I admire and things which I am a bit wary of.

I’m not sure whether Schoenberg’s Moses is more like a brave modern artist or intellectual, trying to create something new but realizing that all messages are distorted by the media they’re portrayed through – or more like a stereotypical religious fanatic, unable to accept any other ideas or thoughts except those he imagines are being beamed into his head directly by the Supreme Being. In the planned (but never composed) ending, Moses triumphs and, flanked by soldiers, scolds Aron for his wickedness, and Aron drops dead. Was Moses a brilliant, principled reformer or the type of guy who would have put a hit out on Salman Rushdie, or both?

I think the composer himself wasn’t sure, and I assume that’s why one of the reasons he stopped working on the opera and never finished it.

Anyway, as another irony for an opera which hinges on communication breakdown and ends with “O Wort, du Wort, das mir fehlt!”, I can’t find the text for the opera anywhere online, so my understanding of it is currently fragmentary, based on random summaries I’ve read online and the few words I can understand in the recording. And I guess the final irony is that I was supposed to convey this all through the succinct medium of haiku, and I’ve ended up taking hundreds of words to explain myself. Oh well. I can only imagine how long my version of the Ten Commandments would be.

1 comment:

Rach said...

Very interestingly put