University of Hartford "H" Magazine - Winter 2019

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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Schoenberg: Moses and Aaron

02/18/2018 1:00 pm
02/18/2018 4:30 pm


Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

This past Wednesday, February 14th, was Ash Wednesday in the traditional Roman Catholic calendar. That day marks the beginning of Lent, the forty-day penitential period leading up to Easter Sunday. In old Catholic Europe (and in Protestant lands, too) the opera houses closed for the duration, but sacred oratorios were often publicly performed rather than staged operas.

On these upcoming Lenten Sundays I will be presenting mostly sacred vocal music in the general Judeo-Christian heritage, some of it liturgical, some of it merely inspired by that heritage. Long ago on March 31, 1985 I broadcast a 1976 Columbia Masterworks release of Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aaron. Jewish by birth and upbringing, Schoenberg converted to German Protestant Christianity in 1898, then reverted to Judaism in 1933 in a liturgical ceremony, just in time to be persecuted by the Nazis!

Schoenberg had always been deeply committed to his Jewish heritage. Yet the Messianic element in Judaism drew him towards the figure of Jesus. Biblical subjects had occupied the composer's mind before. He wrote a huge unfinished oratorio Die Jakobsleiter ("Jacob's Ladder") between 1915 and 1917. His operatic Moses und Aaron was likewise left unfinished at the time of his death in 1951. Schoenberg did complete two full acts of the three he planned. The third act he allowed to be performed as a spoken word drama.

The choral sections of the first two acts make use of the innovative Sprechgesang technique that lies halfway between speaking and full singing. Schoenberg considered Moses und Aaron to be his masterwork, and it is one of the largest musical compositions written in the twelve-tone scale system he invented. Many famous English singers took part in this 1975 studio recording of Schoenberg's "sacred" opera, among them soprano Felicity Palmer, tenors John Noble and Philip Langridge and contralto Helen Watts. Pierre Boulez directed the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Singers and Orpheus Boys' Choir.

The first two acts of Moses und Aaron fit onto two Columbia stereo LPs. Sung in German.