Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Film version of "Moses and Aaron", opera by Arnold Schoenberg, would complement Ridley Scott's spectacle this year


New Yorker Films (aka Rialto and Janus Films) sells a DVD of a 1975 film version of the opera “Moses and Aaron” (or “Moses und Aron”) by Arnold Schoenberg, composer of the music and writer of the original libretto in German in 1930. The directors are Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub.

Moses and Aaron are played by Gunter Reich and Louis Devos respectively. The German Radio Orchestra is conducted by Michael Gielen.
  
The film has all three acts, but music was completed only for the first two, and the third act, with spoken dialogue only, is very brief.
  
The film stresses rather static acting outdoors, in a setting that appear to be shot around the Sea of Galilee in Israel. The scenery, if a little faded with age, is breathtaking, with panoramas that remind me of “The Sound of Music” even if the music here is expressionistic and disturbing.  It's interesting to see this film now after Ridley Scott's "Exodus" (Dec. 14).  
  
Actually, Schoenberg isn’t hard to get used to.  His earliest works are late romantic, following Mahler (like the “Gurrelieder”) and even his larger “atonal” works start striking the ear as the logical outcome of very late Maher.  The music really makes perfect sense and supports the story, and is almost lush, for all the atonality and dissonance, especially in the massed choral passages as well as the more intimate chamber-music interludes.
  
The most controversial sense in the opera is Scene 3 of Act 2, “The Golden Calf”, taking about 25 minutes.  While Moses is on Mt, Sinai receiving The Ten Commandments, the Israelites grow impatient and start worshipping the golden calf idol that they have built.  The libretto describes all kind of debauchery, including the undressing of virgins, songs about fecundity, and even suicides.  
  
The film visuals soft-pedal these activities, although there is some distant nudity in a couple spots. There is a passage of actors’ break-dancing to the music (not “dirty dancing”), some of which really grabs the attention of the musical ear with the unusual sequences of 12-tone passages in the brass. The whole episode makes one ponder why one has to “take orders” in how to believe in Jehovah (or Allah, for that matter), and why the worship of one’s own ideals (“upward affiliation”) can lead to social breakdown – a constant theme of social conservatism, especially religiously based. 
  
The DVD has a 16-minute short film “Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene’” (1973), where letters from the composer are read.  The material relates Schoenberg’s growing concern over fascism and the need to leave Germany in the 1930s.  He also expresses a skepticism about the morality of capitalism and even too much emphasis on private property, as he sees it as leading to neglect, and corruption from those seeking to keep their wealth.  The ideology, as read, sounds like Marxism to me. 

The DVD libretto booklet includes commentary by Michael Gallope ("Sacred music you can't consume") and Allen Shawn. 
  
  

The YouTube excerpt above comes from a 2006 performance of the work with the Vienna State Opera. 

Wikipedia attribution link for Sea of Galilee picture (second). 

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