Moses and Aaron

translation of Schoenberg’s libretto for his own opera: commissioned by Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
published by Friends of Covent Garden

For the first British staging of Schoenberg’s legendary unfinished opera, conductor Georg Solti and director Peter Hall wanted the words to be understood - in principle, that is, given how difficult in performance of opera the words can be to hear. I soon found that translating a libretto for singers is more than a linguistic matter. There’s the question of which vowels and diphthongs sing well at various pitches of the voice; of taking care to choose words with final syllables ‘open’ enough, where the music requires them to be sustained; and so on... With Schoenberg’s text, there’s a further exigency. His melodic lines and musical textures are motivic - certain figures and phrases are identified with certain key words and ideas. Each motiv brings ‘its’ idea into play each time it is heard. The translator must line up each equivalent word or phrase with ‘its’ motiv each time it recurs. So, to translate this libretto accurately, one has to be also hearing the music in one’s head. A further problem is that German sentence-syntax arranges its elements in not quite the order that English does. In natural translation, therefore, a key word could well fall on the wrong part of the melodic line. Where there was a conflict between elegant English, and musicality, I chose musicality - for Schoenberg’s sake, and so that the line would be thematically accurate for the singers too. I was greatly relieved when Solti observed of my translation that it was ‘very musical’. Some, however, disputed that the text should have been translated at all. George Steiner objected that it were better the words be incomprehensible than that they be corrupted by translation - rather as though Schoenberg’s text were Torah. I thought Steiner’s a somewhat Hassidic view. By a thematic irony, as often happens in the theatre, this external issue arising is also the issue at the heart of the work itself. Moses is the brother who has been vouchsafed the Vision, absolute and pure, that can not be expressed in words. Aaron is the brother who insists that the Vision be communicated to humankind - even though the medium of words shall debase it. Steiner was Moses, I was Aaron here. But Steiner had perceived the issue, and its importance.

Not so a BBC Radio 3 feature on the production, compiled by John Amis, which managed in all its 60 minutes' talk of costumes and camels and the rest to mention not once our endeavour to communicate the work’s argument to an English-language audience. I am reminded of Beecham’s observation - the English don’t like music, they merely like the noise it makes.