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Staging and Negating Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron: Representing a Representation of the Unrepresentable

Colloquium Muziekwetenschap 
Dr. Mark Berry (Royal Holloway, University of London) 

16 april, 15:30-17:00
Universiteitstheater, Nieuwe Doelenstraat 16, zaal 3.01

In this lecture, I shall look at perhaps the most theological of all operas, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, with particular reference to its dramatic questioning of the very possibility of artistic, and specifically musical, representation. Schoenberg’s God is unimaginable in the very real sense of it being impossible to make Him into an image. Were the Israelites to succeed in seeing Him, He would no longer be their God. Schoenberg’s conversion to Lutheranism is as important here as his subsequent re-conversion to Judaism. The great Protestant and specifically Lutheran controversy over the Second Commandment, involving Luther’s claim that it applied only to pagans, not to Christians, and its subsequent ejection from the list of ten, its be of importance here. Reformation controversy over iconoclasm fed into the classical German concept of self-cultivation or Bildung, the very word incorporating Bild, or ‘image’. Where, however, does that leave the possibility of musico-dramatic expression?

How, moreover, does such extreme difficulty with respect to the work ‘itself’ translate into staging? Schoenberg’s own stage directions are notoriously unrealisable. Erwin Stein reported, apparently without irony, from the 1957 premiere: ‘In Zurich there was not enough space for displaying the processions of camels, wagons and asses which are supposed to bring offerings to the idol. These tasks as well as the slaughter of cattle and the roasting of meat, which are part of the offerings, will tax the resources of any opera house.’ That, of course, is a practical difficulty, but what of more theoretical concerns, especially in the light of debates concerning Werktreue and Regietheater? Consideration of some productions of Moses und Aron will ask what they have to tell us about representation and its impossibility, and likewise what the work’s confrontation with representation has to tell us about the possibilities, and otherwise, of staging.