The Voice that ends Opera:
Moses’ encounter and the failure of representation in Schönberg’s “Moses and Aaron”


This paper treats the failure as well as the paradox of representation staged in Schönberg’s Moses and Aaron in terms of an extended commentary on the Second Commandment.  For example, it shows how God is represented in the opera by the very voice that God makes impossible.   In addition, it historically situates a critique of the imaginary father of fascism against both Freud and Schönberg’s Moses, with their concern with the insufficiency of the imaginary and with the stuttering occasioned by the “Real,” i.e., by an encounter with that which cannot be represented.


          It is fitting that following his Seminar on Anxiety, Lacan paid a short visit to the God of Moses where he tells us in Les Noms du Pere that Freud’s pen stopped writing.” Immediately, however, he reassuringly adds, “But Freud is surely beyond what his pen transmits to us.”  t is precisely where Freud stops writing that Lacan will pick up his pen in an elaboration of his theory of the Name of the Father.  Lacan picks up his pen at two points—first and foremost—where Freud left off, that is, where Freud’s pen failed, and second, at the “beyond” of Freud’s pen.  In both instances, Lacan underscores the Real[1]and the question of transmission, both in terms of the Freudian legacy and in terms of the God of Moses.

Lacan states that Freud’s pen stopped writing at a certain place—where he encountered something that made his pen fail, i.e., Moses’ God, some “Thing” that Moses encountered in the Real, a burning bush that spoke and sent him on a mission whose end he would never see and whose truth he would never recover from—what will have been responsible for what Freud will call “an advancement in the life of the Spirit.”  At the same time, in front of the God who occasioned this spiritual advance, Freud’s pen would nevertheless stop writing.  Note that Lacan carefully separates Freud’s pen from Freud himself or any of Freud’s intentions.  He signals that the failure of Freud’s pen is structural not personal and smacks of the failure or insufficiency of the phallus to handle this traumatic encounter.  He suggests thereby, that something in the constitutory moment of the Judaic tradition is still traumatically at work, even stopping Freud.  If, as Lacan teaches, “the phallus assures the knotting of the signifying system,”[2] the encounter with this God makes any knotting temporary or insufficient.  This encounter with the Real—a very particular historical Real—exposes the phallus[3] as semblant[4].  We could call this encounter the Jewish sublime, the encounter with the Eternal One in which we find exposed the fundamental inadequation of the Sensual and the Idea, or in Lacanian terms, the failure of the signifier[5] to handle the Real. And yet we can’t help but note that the failure of writing is occasioned by a God who paradoxically can only be transmitted by writing, indeed, whose imagelessness is His and writing’s very condition.  That Lacan will pick up the “beyond” of Freud’s pen suggests an attention to meaning beyond the phallus, namely, what he will be able to say about structure and meaning due to noting the place that meaning fails and that writing stops.  (Perhaps this is why he claims in the Ethics Seminar that psychoanalysts should “know the book [Freud’s Moses] by heart.”)

Significantly, such an encounter with the God of Moses in its meta-representative form will make Arnold Schönberg’s pen fail as well.  From 1932 when he wrote Moses and Aaron until his death in 1951, Schönberg was unable, despite his expressed intentions, to write the music to Act III and complete the work.  This is well chronicled in his letters in which he continually reiterated his intention to complete the opera.  In a letter written in 1951, the year of his death, Schönberg realized that he might never be able to write the music for the last act and asked that the opera be performed with the third Act spoken and unaccompanied regardless.[6]  As others have pointed out, Schönberg’s compositional failure is a direct result of the logic that dramatically unfolds in the opera—that is to say, it is a direct result of the problematic of the second commandment, “Thou shalt not form any graven image.”

The second commandment produces a paradox.   For the religious Jew, “The Name” holds that place in discourse that refers to the unnamable God.  The observant Jew says “The Name” (Hashem) to name the unnamable.  Even today many orthodox students write “G-d” in English to avoid “writing” God’s name.  When I inquire about this curious proclivity they respond that they “cannot write or say the name of God” since it is “against their religion” to which I always reply, “that’s right.”  This rather peculiar practice suggests that God’s name could in fact be written, that God might be revealed in a kind of “whoops, ut-oh—I wrote too much.” While Freud would call these “superstitions,” or “obsessional” practices, they nevertheless reveal that the subject who practices them believes there is something there to be covered up, that God’s name perhaps could be sayable or writeable when in fact, the Jewish God denotes precisely the inverse.  Moreover, these practices underline the super-egoical commandment against representation (in other words, we are tempted to write or say His name precisely because it has been interdicted).  Focusing on the commandment as interdiction, allows us to think God’s name is sayable and we could transgress it.

Schönberg’s unfinished opera Moses and Aaron demonstrates the paradoxical super-egoical success of failure;  God is “represented” insofar as He is the one who commands that “representation fail” since as Real, He is its very structural impossibility.  One cannot resist taking the next step, namely that the failure of representation is its very success (that is, paradoxically, one could only represent God as the failure of representation) thus making BOTH failure and representation forms of transgression of the second commandment. 

Schönberg turns the interdiction of the second commandment into the structural impossibility of Opera itself and uses it to wed his aesthetic problematics to a foundational religious trauma, tying the idea of art as the bearer of truth (a result of his expressionistic antecedents) to an originary religious encounter.  In this regard, Schönberg suggests that freedom (from Pharaoh) is intimately connected to this new kind of worship.  Schönberg’s God literally says to Moses that he is “united with Him” and by way of Him “separated from Pharaoh.”  This passage underlines the non-imaginary-father (or beyond the imaginary father) nature of Yahweh.  Lacan writes in the Ethics Seminar, “The myth of the origin of the law is incarnated in the murder of the father.  The myth of the murder of the father is the myth for the time for which God is dead.” (Lacan 1986)  It is no surprise then that in the 1930’s Freud and Schönberg turned to the God of Moses in order to think the difference between the leader and the imaginary of the father on the one hand, and the law on the other.  While God had died, he was threatening to reappear in the terrible form of fascism and National Socialism, a new idolatry.  At the moment of the rise of totalitarianism then, both critique the imaginary father to come down on the side of the ethics of deferral: a leader, a great leader (even the great Moses himself) has to make his impotence clear in order to follow God.  That said, nevertheless, in separating from Pharaoh, that is, from an imaginary enslavement to a man-god, the “Unimaginable One” as Schönberg’s Moses will repeatedly call him, has occasioned a strange kind of freedom: an impossible, unbearable and traumatic one.  The Stimme tells Moses that he has encountered “Wahrheit” and, forever bound, he will never be able to do anything else.[7]  …Some freedom.

In the Ethics Seminar, Lacan will refer to the burning bush as “Moses’ Thing[8]”—

and in Schönberg’s dramatization of it, it is quite a Thing!  Einziger, ewiger, allgegenwärtiger, unsichtbarer und unvorstellbarer Gott!” exclaims Moses over and over again, in an exhaustive almost fearful and awe-inspiring Sprechstimme refrain throughout the opera.  So overcome is he by this encounter that it becomes the pivotal experience of his entire existence “burning” everything in its wake.

Schönberg contrasts what one might call (depending on one’s mood or where one is in one’s own analysis)[9] either Moses’ metaphysical heroism or his monstrous monomania with Aaron’s more “user friendly” nature.  Aaron is the one who will give the children of Israel what they want – both by conceding to the Golden Calf when they can’t wait any longer for Moses to descend from the mountain, and by giving the people miracles to see when he is trying to convince them that Yahweh is “back in town” to get them out of Egypt.  Schönberg makes Aaron the one who performs the miracles (rather than Moses who does so in the biblical account) in order to convince the Israelites of Yahweh’s divinity.  Yet for Moses, this is a “compromise” — precisely because it panders to the Israelites’ base desire to see.  As far as Aaron is concerned, however, he is just “doing his job.  The impossibility of “adequate transmission” of God is not a problem for the more pragmatic Aaron who “gives in” to representation with signs and miracles.  For Aaron, the point is simply to lead the people, to make them follow Yahweh, not necessarily to make them know him.  Moses, on the other hand, is tolerant of no sign whatsoever.  He even sees the pillar of smoke as a kind of compromise—only given to the people by Aaron because they need something to hold on to.    Schönberg’s irony of course is that the fire and smoke are “variations on a theme” of the initial burning bush to begin with.  Nevertheless, Moses is intransigent; he wants to transmit the purity of the “Idea” uncontaminated by anything else.

Schönberg constantly underlines that the very purity of Moses’ position lands him in a myriad of paradoxes.  For example, when Moses descends from the mountain and beholds the Golden Calf, he exclaims, “Be gone, you image of powerlessness to enclose the boundless in an image finite!”[10]  Magically, by uttering these words, the calf disappears.  Clearly a far better Jew than the biblical Moses, this Moses doesn’t break the tablets of the law because of the golden calf.   On the contrary, the calf incident in the opera allows Moses to showcase the power of the Word.  The “word-miracle” that Moses performs makes him in the best sense, the most sublime Jew, or, simply a new kind of magician, a “Jewish magician” one who can kill the Thing with the Word.  At the same time, it begs the question: Is not Moses using the very same magic he condemns his brother for?[11]  Is he not displaying the power of the word to kill the thing before the people’s eyes?  Is he not giving them a sign, even if it is a sign of negation?

These ironies are further brought about in Moses’ very enthrallment with the unrepresentable.  “The law of thought is irresistible,” he exclaims.  This declaration is not without paradox—nce what for Moses is irresistible is what was put in place precisely to resist, in this case, the irresistible image. Here we see the paradox of the Super Ego played out in terms of representation—Moses tells us that the absence of representation is irresistible; it has replaced representation as an object/non-object of fascination and jouissance[12].

A further irony problematizing the “purity” of Moses and the “conciliatory” nature of Aaron is the similarity of Aaron’s voice to God’s voice; both sing.  Further emphasizing this similarity Schönberg has both God and Aaron withdraw from the libretto and leaves us with Moses at the end of the opera, i.e.,  Moses in the wasteland paradoxically still leading the people to the wasteland, aiming to “unify” with God. (Now really—what could better embody the tautological, and eternally diasporic nature of this God if not being in the wasteland while at the same time aiming at getting to the wasteland?) This Moses (Super Jew) doesn’t lead the people towards the Land of Milk and Honey.  “In the wasteland you shall achieve the goal, unity with God.”  These are the opera’s closing lines.  Schönberg both lauds and critiques his hero in this Super-egoical-anorexic ending.  Perhaps he is showcasing the new jouissance that Yahweh introduced into the world—the Jouissance of Nothing.

This critique is further seen at the end of the opera when Moses orders Aaron’s release and pardons him from his “transgression” of having given the people signs, Aaron dies.  Clearly Schönberg is saying that art should not be pardoned from this transgression, since it is the transgression that makes art possible.  Aaron lives insofar as he has a role in representing what cannot be represented; this is the life of art.  Art lives as failure; and it mustn’t be deprived of this failure in the name of excessive purity.

In a masterful moment of irony, Schönberg has Aaron tell Moses that the tablets are “already a representation.”  If my signs are idolatrous, he tells Moses, then your tablets are no different. The tablets themselves are a form of idolatry, he claims.  It is not a question—as it has been for in the debate between “prima la musica vs. prima la parola” that has been part of opera since its inception—of the “primacy” of word or music—neither is primary.  Both lack ontological being. And both Schönberg tells us, can be the source of an “idolatrous” jouissance.  In response to Aaron’s criticism, Moses exclaims, “Thus all is madness that I believed in before, and can and must not be given voice.  O word, thou word that I lack!”  Schönberg forces Moses to lose even the originary Logos he thought he had.

Moses and Aaron exemplifies Lacan’s statement that “The Hebrew accords special value to the gap that separates desire and its fulfillment.”(Lacan 1963) The absence of the third act score, the twenty year postponement and failure of its completion, the death of Aaron in the third Act, and the ending of the opera in the wasteland, are symptomatic of the religious problematic that one could say, overwhelms the opera itself becoming its own kind of jouissance.  To a certain extent— Schönberg is in the place of his Moses as the one who never arrived where he wanted to get, neither to Israel (Schönberg became a Zionist and never emigrated) nor to the end of his opera, Moses and Aaron.  As a Jew, he demonstrated artistically and literally the special privilege accorded to the gap Lacan underlines, showing that the goal of the Zionist is to continue to desire to immigrate to Israel and that the goal of the artist is a representation that will always fall short of its aim.

In addition, like Moses, Arnold Schönberg killed the “gods of tonality” and unhinged music from its “necessary” tonal meaning to a kind of harmonic free association.  An iconoclast, he exposed the arbitrary nature of the tonal system.  Moreover, by way of overthrowing tonality, Schönberg effectively displaced musical teleology, and ended musical ending.  Schönberg exposed the “fiction” that structures musical endings—he showed that it could be replaced with another system, logical but arbitrary, less beautiful, but one that would not necessarily need to end since it would never find a tonic since it never had one to begin with.




In terms of the problematic of representation, the most fundamental contradiction dramatized in the opera is between speech and song, or Gesang and Sprechgesang.  Schönberg dramatizes Moses’ “Caved Lashon” or “slowness of speech,” his “ungelenk/unflexible” tongue as an inability to sing.  Needless to say, in an opera this is clearly a liability – how will he sing without a voice?  Really, who’s going to believe an opera singer without a voice?  Aaron’s melodic line, on the other hand, will stretch to the heights and depths of melodic ecstatic enjoyment, underlining the magnificent heroic voice that Aaron has (as well as Aaon the singer in order to simply get through the part.)

Like “Moses and Aaron,” the Stimme aus dem Dornbush is composed of both Sprechgesang and Gesang, sung by a chorus of a capella voices.  Not only does this chorus of voices represent the plurality and the One of “Elohim” but Schönberg suggests that the burning bush is actually composed of a mix of Moses and Aaron demonstrating that the Divine concerns the unfathomable intermingling of the two.

Significantly underscoring the ambiguity of representation, Schönberg doesn’t call the burning bush “God” but “The Voice,” Die Stimme –he specifically highlights the representational rather than ontological aspect of the Divine.  He forces us to ask:


What “is” a voice? What was Moses’ Thing?


It is not that Schönberg decided to “represent” the bush as a voice — rather Schönberg’s brilliance was to have understood that the burning bush was the Voice.  A representation of pure drive, the burning bush is a kind of “voice” incarnate; we could call it “the Moses principle,” i.e., the eternal canceling of nature by language and voice.

With this in mind, I propose that we read “Moses’ Thing,” that is his “bush/voice”—in terms of Language and the Drive.


1. Die Stimme is the principle of language as the voiding of Das Ding.


As part of the initial calling, Die Stimme says to Moses that now that he knows the truth, Moses will see that “…so vernimmst du meine Stimme aus jedem Ding.” Moses will find the Voice in everything, since it is the principle of the linguistic world.  This is the way Moses’ God inaugurates something new; he ushers in the nothing that makes the world fundamentally linguistic.  As the burning bush, language is in relation to the natural world as that which burns it up but never consumes it.  Thus Schönberg underlines that the Exodus of Moses from Egypt is simultaneously an Exodus from the natural world.  God cancels out the material thus constituting the “eternal” nature of the Diaspora—a linguistic Diaspora that is reiterated in every enunciation. (Here it is tempting to make a connection that Freud omits; both Yahweh and Aton are gods of burning).

Yahweh is the God who destroys any knowledge based in nature and makes language the condition of knowledge and representation the condition of being.  

This is the fundamental paradox of the opera which is at the same time, the paradox of Yahweh—the God who makes representation impossible is the very one who inaugurates its possibility.   

2. Die Stimme is a representation of the unrepresentable: the Drive: 


In Les Noms du Père, Lacan calls the bush “God’s body.”  As voice then, I would argue that the burning bush is a kind of beyond of body; it is an imaginarization of drive itself.  It burns and is not consumed; it is always and never disappearing and has no aim except to continue. The Voice as object is the burning bush precisely insofar as it is not exhausted by signification.  It burns and is not consumed; its meaning will be forever indiscernible since the voice as such can never finally mean.

The Stimme is a particularly strange “body” insofar as it is a voice without a rim– a structural impossibility.  We usually think of the voice as tying the signifier to the body—but here—the voice “is tied” to an image of the burning bush—that is, the voice is not tied to body but to an image of itself—an image precisely of no-body.

What kind of voice has no rim? A voice that doesn’t emanate from anyone or anywhere but from everywhere.  Without rim, boundless, this is a voice that problematizes the relation of inside and outside, of self and other. A rimless voice suggests connotes a subject with no lack, ie., God; such a voice could only be traumatic.  It is interesting to recall in this context that El Sahddai in Hebrew means “sufficient to himself,” or we could say, He who has no lack.

Why didn’t Schönberg choose song for Moses and words for Aaron? Indeed, one would think that he would want his hero to be similar to God. After all, God calls Moses his “mouth.”  Schönberg suggests that Moses was chosen precisely because he cannot transmit this Voice in order to dramatize the radically extimate nature of it.  Indeed, he even makes us wonder whether the Voice itself is the cause of Moses’ slowness of speech.

The fact that the source of the voice is fundamentally ambiguous is made strikingly clear in the beginning of the opera will make us wonder:  Is Moses calling out to God at the same time a calling out of God?   With this in mind, we should note the opening scene, “Moses Berufung,” differs significantly from the biblical account.  In Exodus, God clearly calls Moses and Moses replies.  In the opera, however, Schönberg makes the origin of this call fundamentally ambiguous; Moses comes onstage already calling “Einziger, ewiger, and allgegenwartiger” etc… We meet Moses calling (to God? Because of God?) before we meet God calling Moses.  Schönberg thereby underscores how this encounter was truly Moses’ and suggests that it originated with him, one is tempted to say, even in him.  The voice does not interpolate Moses but cuts a hole in him.  Moses’ God doesn’t desire the children of Israel—He chooses them.  One is tempted to say that the Berufung was Moses’, what was traumatic was the Voice that answered.

It is notable that Schönberg’s Stimme never says “I am that I am.”  In The Names of the Father Seminar, Lacan points out that “I am that I am” signifies an essentially hidden God, an exhibition of the linguistic principle of hiddeness itself.   By Schönberg’s ingeniously presenting the Stimme as the burning bush, these words are not needed since the hiddeness is made dramatically present in the bush as song.  Song, the marriage of voice and logos, of Moses and Aaron is the principle of hiddeness, that is to say of showing and hiding at the same time.  As such, song inaugurates a tautology central to Moses’ Thing and to opera itself; it is what cannot be represented.  The central paradox of the opera is that the “the straying from the Idea” is the Thing itself.




Lacan, J.:

-         (1966) Ecrits (Paris: Seuil).

-        (1983) Seminar XXI: Les Non-dupes errent.

-        (1986) Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, trans. by D. Porter (New York: Norton).


[1] For Lacan, the Real is one of the three registers: the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real that make up subjective reality. Emphasized at the end of his teaching, the Real is the field that insists as unsymbolizable. Subjectivity is a response to the Real which is both the cause and remainder of the signification process. The Real is what “always comes back to the same place.”  In this quote, the Real is what makes transmission both possible, necessary and always in part a failure since it is what structurally is impossible to transmit.

[2]le phallus assure le nouage du système signifiant,” Lacan (1966), La Signification du Phallus.

[3] The phallus is the signifier as designator of meaning.

[4] We could translate the Lacanian concept of “semblant” as “semblance” or that which “seems” to be. To expose the “phallus as semblant” is to expose the insufficiency of language and meaning to account for the Real. It is to say that the Symbolic is a lacking set, or “not-all.”

[5] The concept of the signifier is fundamental to Lacan’s theory that the unconscious is structured like a language. The signifier is the way the subject is divided between language and jouissance.

[6] “But I have already conceived to a great extent the music for the third act, and believe that I would be able to write it in only a few months” (1949).  “…but since then I have found neither time nor mood for the composing of the third act.  In fact, the third act consists of a single scene….All of that depends upon my nervous eye affliction” (1950).  “Agreed that the third act may simply be spoken, in case I cannot complete the composition” (1951). Note by Gertrud Schönberg  in Moses and Aaron, translated by Allen Forte, Belmont Music Publishers.

[7]“…so kannst Du nicht anders mehr,” Die Stimme to Moses, Act I, Moses and Aaron libretto.

[8] The “Thing” or “Das Ding” is a concept that Lacan develops in Seminar VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. Lacan tells us that the Thing is what is always situated elsewhere. Lacan calls it “altogether something else.” It is what is voided to make language and subjectivity possible. The Thing is always already lost by the nature of language itself. Every subsequent object would be a surrogate for Das Ding. When Lacan refers to the burning bush as Moses’ “Thing” it suggests that this “bush” is what will allow no substitution. Yahweh is “das Ding” insofar as he is that which makes any imaginary representation both impossible and paradoxically necessary.

[9] I don’t mean to say that there is a progression in analysis or that one is more true than the other.

[10]“Vergeh, du Abbild des Unvermögens, das Grenzenlose in ein Bild zu fassen!” Moses and Aaron, Act II, scene 4.

[11]Note that in the biblical version Moses and Aaron grind up the calf and force the people to eat it.  There the calf has a totemic purpose. The difference between the opera and the biblical version shows the differing concerns of the two Moses. The Moses of the bible wants to teach the children of Israel something; he is concerned about them.  Schönberg’s more modern Moses, on the other hand, is only concerned with fidelity to his “Thing.”


[12] Lacan uses the term jouissance in several ways during his teaching. We can use the English “enjoyment” but it doesn’t do justice to Lacan’s term since jouissance can mean an enjoyment in excess – one that is not pleasurable.  Jouissance can mean an enjoyment that cannot be signified in language, it can mean “joui-sens,” that is, the enjoyment of language itself, it can mean the enjoyment of the super ego, it can refer to the drive that always enjoys. Here I argue that the absence of representation, that is, the move to “void” the imaginary in order to limit enjoyment, has itself become a source of enjoyment.

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