Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron: The Movie and the Music

Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron: The Movie and the Music March 7, 2018

I love teaching my course on the Bible and music! In the class period dedicated to the Exodus, we ranged through so many subjects, across thousands of years.

We started off in Exodus 15, thinking about the “Song of the Sea” and the way music was used in times before widespread literacy and writing technology to convey information and pass it on from one generation to the next. (Schoolhouse Rock got a shout-out in that context). It is quite possible that the “Song of the Sea” represents a very old piece of tradition embedded in the narrative. Notice for instance how it envisages horses and their riders being thrown into the sea – not a natural way of referring to the sea being thrown upon them, as happens in the Exodus narrative in its present form.

We then proceeded to African-American spirituals, focusing on the example of “Wade in the Water.” That song allowed me to make a connection to the first concrete example of the intersection of the Bible and music that I highlighted on the first day of class, “Dry Bones,” which many of them know as a children’s song about anatomy, missing in that form the fact that the imagery comes from Ezekiel. In that song as in “Wade in the Water,” imagery about the rescuing or restoration of the people of Israel is in view, but takes on an element of slow progress in the place of miraculous divine intervention. The bones connect one by one, step by step. The water does not part, but wading through it you might be able to cause those pursuing runaway slaves to lose your scent.

We then moved on to Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, which I have blogged about before. In connection with that, I got students thinking about poetry, what used to define it, and why those characteristics were set aside. Most of us prefer poetry to prose, at least within the cards that we receive from those who wish to tell us they love us. But we don’t appreciate so much those poems that begin “Roses are red, violets are blue…” Students were able to articulate why that is the case: because these involve little creativity, they are unimpressive and unoriginal. The same thing happened in music: the rules that once summed up that which we found beautiful and pleasing came to bore us, and so we pushed the envelope and prodded at the rules until eventually, Schoenberg came along and suggested first discarding the rules and then putting a new rule in their place to bring order to the resulting chaos.

For more on that topic, see Matt Page’s recent post about the movie version of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron at the Bible Films Blog. It really does provide an excellent exploration of the work’s musical significance.

We ended back in Exodus 15, having passed by way of Metallica’s “Creeping Death” and The Prince of Egypt. The latter segued nicely into a question about Exodus 15 and texts like it. Is the Bible a musical? What does it mean that it is peppered with musical numbers interspersed throughout the narrative?

Here’s my favorite YouTube video of Metallica’s “Creeping Death,” which was inspired not only by the Exodus story, but specifically by the movie The Ten Commandments, and so it is fitting to bring the two together in this way. So let it be written. So let it be done.

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  • Gary

    “This is why the point at which Schönberg begins the narrative is particularly significant. By beginning just as God is about to speak to Moses for the first, and most decisive time, means that the opening notes – the twelve notes that define the tone row upon which the whole opera is written – come from the voice of God,”

    “This interest in numbers affects the work in a number of different ways. It is notable, for example, that the title of the piece “Moses und Aron” is twelve letters long,”

    “The atonal nature of the piece and its emphasis on the twelve notes, make the importance of the number twelve clear”

    “Prince of Egypt”

    Correlations with “The Exodus”, by Richard Elliott Friedman.

    “About 40 years later, (a biblical number), when I had become a biblical scholar, I was a consultant on another movie about the exodus, The Prince of Egypt. Jeffrey Katzenberg at Dreamworks graciously allowed me to bring my daughter to one of the sessions at the studio. She was about the age that I had been when I had seen The Ten Commandments, so I met the story again through a child’s eyes.”

    “Two of the group of old songs are the Song of the Sea (also known as the Song of Miriam) and the Song of Deborah. Noel identified them as the two oldest things in the Bible.”

    “The text never speaks of the whole nation of Israel. It just refers to a people (in Hebrew, an ‘am) leaving Egypt.”

    “The Song (of Deborah) lists the ten tribes of Israel whom Deborah summoned to battle. It calls each tribe by name. But one is missing. It does not mention Levi. Why? Either (a) the Levites where not there yet. They were in Egypt (or on the road). Or (b) the Levites were not a tribe of Israel going into battle; they were a priestly group, dispersed among the tribes. Actually the answer involves both… The Song of Deborah, set in Israel, does not mention the Levites; and the Song of Miriam, set in Egypt, does not mention Israel.”

    “In our oldest source, the Song of the Sea, their God is mentioned nine times, and in all nine the name is Yahweh….But we do know that back in Israel the people worshipped the God called El. The very name Israel is Hebrew yisra-‘el… The Israelites and the Canaanites worshipped the chief god El. So when the Levites arrived with their God Yahweh, and they meet up with the resident Israelites with their God El, what do they do?”

    “They could have chosen to worship only El. They could have chosen to worship only Yahweh. They could have chosen to worship both. They could have said that El is Yahweh’s father, or his son. But they chose none of these. They said: El is Yahweh. He was always Yahweh, but the Israelites in the land has not known this name because He did not reveal it until the time that these Levites were to come from Egypt to Israel. He revealed it to His greatest prophet, their leader, Moses.”