Major Operas | Moses und Aron by Arnold Schoenberg | Modern Era

Composed: 1930–32
Premiered: 1957, Zurich
Libretto by the composer

Act I

Moses prays in the desert. He is answered by voices from the Burning Bush telling him to become a prophet and the leader of the Israelites. He pleads that he does not have the eloquence to explain God’s will in terms they can understand, but is told that this will be the task of his brother Aron. Moses meets Aron, to whom an understanding of God’s purpose comes spontaneously, although Moses has to restrain his exuberance. When Aron describes how God can be swayed by offerings, Moses insists that sacrifices will not alter His purpose. They are intended to purify one’s thinking, not change events.

Word spreads that the new god that Moses is bringing may be stronger than the Egyptian gods and will free them from captivity. A priest resists this idea and the people divide into two factions. Moses and Aron are seen approaching. The people offer to sacrifice to the new god if it will bring them hope. They are bewildered by Moses’ command that they should fall down and worship something they cannot see. Aron throws down Moses’ staff, which turns into a serpent, demonstrating how a rigid idea can become flexible. Two further miracles persuade the Israelites to pledge their allegiance to the new God and follow Moses.


Moses has been away for 40 days. The people wonder whether he has abandoned them.

Act II

The elders warn Aron that the people are growing restless and demanding their old gods. To stop them killing the priests, he offers to make a golden image for them to worship. A golden calf is set up amid orgiastic rejoicing. Old men sacrifice themselves and four naked virgins are killed to appease the calf. A man who denounces the idolatry is murdered. Everyone succumbs to an orgy, until they are finally exhausted. Moses enters, carrying the tablets of the law. He destroys the calf.

Aron justifies his action by saying that he has heard nothing from Moses. The people cannot survive without his love. They need an image to follow, even the tablets. Moses smashes them. Aron claims to have kept hope alive. He leads the Israelites as they follow a pillar of fire towards the Promised Land. To Moses, however, this is just another image. Aron has falsified God’s revelation to Moses.

Personalities | Arnold Schoenberg | Modern Era | Opera


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