On the Architecture of the Jewish Museum in Berlin

The second dimension of the project is a musical one. For at the very beginning I took my cue from Schönberg’s unfinished opera entitled Moses and Aron, a piece that has long fascinated me. However, what interested me about this opera was not only that it had twelve letters in its title and all those other serial aspects, but also the fact that although Schönberg started writing it – in Berlin – he was never actually able to complete it. Even though he did make an attempt to finish it, the opera falls apart in the second act. Only the first two acts were ever composed. The point is not only that he lacked the inspiration, so to speak, to complete the third act, but also that the entire musical structure had ground to a halt and that there was consequently no longer any way he could continue with the opera in the same vein. This interested me, as I had always found it remarkable that a genius – this outstanding intellect and great composer – had been unable to complete the third act. So I took out all my records and Schönberg’s score and began to read the libretto. At this point I realized that fundamentally the opera really does have something to do with the Berlin museum. Of course, the former was written much earlier, but as I mentioned before, the time factor does not play such a decisive rote. The opera consists of a dialogue between Aron and Moses, whereby Aron is the “voice”, the mouthpiece of the people of Israel, and Moses the one who understands that there is nothing to show to the people. Aron wishes to tell the people that they will be led into the Promised Land, and Moses feels unable to find any image to explain God’s revelation – including the musical image, in Schönberg’s case. I will not bore you by reading out the libretto – also composed by Schönberg – I only wish to give you a general idea. The discussion between Moses and Aron ends with Aron disappearing gradually into the background and the choir singing: “Almighty, you are stronger than Egypt’s gods”, at which point they all depart and Moses stands on the stage and apparently, if you know the opera, he sings. He attempts to sing the following: “Unimaginable God! Unutterable thought with many meanings! Do you permit this interpretation? May Aron, my mouth, make this image? Thus have I made myself an image, as false as an image can be! Thus am I beaten! Thus, everything I thought was madness and cannot and may not be spoken!” All this is sung. “Oh word, you word that I lack”, this last line, “Oh word, you word that I lack”, is no longer sung but actually only spoken. At the end of the opera we can understand the word, because there is no music. We can understand what is said in the opera, because the word is isolated, so to speak, and expressed in a completely unmusical manner. This is the end of the opera as Schönberg composed it. It is interesting to read on. The second act breaks off here and, in this recording, the end of the second act is also the end of the record. Then I read a little bit further to see how the third act was planned, but it was clear that in the end, Schönberg tried to show that even in the desert Moses would triumph and be united with God.

Schriften zur Architektur – Visionen für Berlin. Herausgegeben von Angelika Stepken. Dresden, Basel 1995, 81–82; english translation published in: The Visions of Arnold Schönberg. Edited by Max Hollein und Blazenka Perica. Frankfurt am Main 2001, 63–64