Performing Chopin

Beethoven: Sonata op. 57 ("Appassionata")

Discovering "L'altro Rossini": Young Meyerbeer's Semiramide

40 to the minim - a study of tempo in Puccini's "Turandot"

Revisiting Senta

How fast does the Dutchman fly?

The Descent from Mount Sinai

Slow movement in Rondo-Sonata form?

Beethoven: Sonata op. 2 no. 2

The Interrupted Feast

The Descent from Mount Sinai


Whether we think that music exist only when actually played, or believe it to dwell also in the mind of anyone capable of silently reading a score, it is quite clear that - like any other performing art - it needs to be put in direct contact with reality and time in order to exist, as far as mankind is concerned. Any musician undertaking the tremendous task of realizing an interpretation of a given piece is faced with an infinite number of factors forming an abyss between his spiritual concept and the actual way the piece is heard when put into practice. The size of the gap by the end of the performance is very often quite considerable and leaves the artist with a feeling of imperfection.

The passage from the study of a score to its realization is difficult. It is often involved with frustration, tensions, misunderstandings and at times violent inner and outer conflicts during rehearsals and even during performances. But it does not necessarily have to be so violent. An unusual and interesting perspective could be obtained by a study of one of the bible's greatest figures at probably the most important moment in his career: Moses and the giving of the TORAH to the people of Israel down Mount Sinai. One is overwhelmed once again by the amount of knowledge and wisdom the old myths of antiquity bear in them, inviting us again  to learn about ourselves in any aspect of our life(*).


Before we examine the events surrounding Mount Sinai, let us consider Moses and his older brother - Aaron. They act during the whole story as a tandem - Moses is the spiritual man, so lofty that he cannot even communicate well with people, a characteristic one finds often (though not necessarily always) with real geniuses. Aaron is the one who puts Moses' ideas and theories into practice. He speaks with the people, and will eventually become responsible for the daily holy-work at the temple tent during the years in the desert. The image of the two brothers holds the idea of an opposition within a common origin. This suits perfectly the feeling one has when one is facing an inner conflict. We could therefore read Moses and Aaron as two complementary characters forming one entity.

Sophocles, in two of his seven remaining plays adds an opposing sister to his heroine in order to underline her character and opinions while at the same time presenting the conflict in a more complete form. Antigone must provide Ismene with clear answers regarding her choice to bury Polynices against Creon's order. Electra's determination to seek revenge, in total antithesis to Chrysothemis' wish for normal life could not be as powerful without the latter's presence. Could we not see this as an inner conflict in one person? Are these not actually the two voices in us speaking when we are facing serious dilemmas?
In the twentieth-century, Berthold Brecht recurred to this technique in his last collaboration with Kurt Weill: "The Seven Deadly Sins", where the two sisters are both named "Anna", describing two sides of one girl abused by her all-male (including a male-mother) family. 


Moses is on mount Sinai alone speaking with god. He is in a purely spiritual condition and has the privilege to fully concentrate on it. Aaron is down with the people, facing reality, forced to provide answers to concrete questions. In the end he has no choice - as the myth shows: he is obliged to build the golden calf.

The composer, as well as the conductor while he is learning the score, is in a purely spiritual condition, just like Moses. He communicates directly with the source of inspiration, be it the composer searching for his own music, or the conductor detecting somebody else's source of inspiration.

However, when the conductor faces his orchestra preparing a symphonic program, or furthermore - the soloists, chorus, stage director, artistic director and many other factors in the opera house, he finds himself in a totally different condition. The absolute freedom he was enjoying while reading the score is lost. Reality presents limitations - be it the capabilities of the players, their willingness to collaborate, the time at his disposal, public taste, traditions, different musical backgrounds than his and so forth. He too has to build a golden calf - an icon as close as possible to the spiritual image revealed to him during his study, but never the same, and quite often more than slightly remote.

This calls to mind the anecdote about Brahms who was asked which one of the three different interpretations of his third symphony played by three different orchestras in Hamburg was to his taste. His answer reportedly was: "The one I hear when I read the score at home". Whether this is reliable or not - it is a humoristic expression of the same idea. Perfection can only be reached when one is up the mountain speaking directly to God.

It is not by chance that the myth chose the descent from the mountain to show what I would suggest as an inner process of moving from spirituality to the reality. At first it is frustrating, provoking anger and even violence of the worst kind: Moses brakes the tablets, destroys the calf and forces the people to drink the water in which he pours the grounded metal. Furthermore, he provokes a fratricide inside the people of Israel, resulting in the massacre of no less than three thousand people.

One should only think of Weber and Berlioz conducting their ultra-innovative compositions with orchestras which were used to play mostly turn-of-the-19th century italian operas. Could that be anything but frustrating? Wagner is describing rehearsals in London where he had to explain each bar of the Tristan prelude to the orchestra, and yet another occasion where due to short rehearsal time the result was far from satisfactory. Anyone working as a conductor knows these feelings.

Once his rage has found its expression, Moses is offered by God to have the people of Israel exterminated and to become the father of a new people to be chosen by God. Moses refuses. At the moment he let out his rage and frustration he had already made a step forward. He starts realizing there is no "other" way - spirituality and reality will never be on the same level and will never look the same. It is with this understanding that he climbs the mountain for the second time and receives the new tablets, described carefully by the myth as identical to the first. This detail is of utmost importance: it is not the spiritual idea and concept that should change. It is the way we approach its realization in practice. This time Moses descends from the mountain with a different attitude. He knows he will find a "stiff-necked" people and realizes that his mission is to bring reality as close as possible to divinity, never allowing anger or frustration to dominate him. Bringing the people one step further in this process should already be a source of satisfaction. Indeed, the first biblical prophet's face is described this time as "shining". He has changed, and the change results in a new aura reflecting his maturity and serenity. 


It would be unfair to ignore the fact that sometimes one does achieve such a level of perfection and artistry in music making, which places the interpretation high with the original spiritual image. I would choose certain recordings of Maria Callas and Bruno Walter as an outstanding example for this. The reader who would not agree with these specific choices may as well find his own. On rare and special occasions we are indeed allowed to enjoy the presence of god even when we are standing at the legs of the mountain. 


(*) The events refered to in the article appear in the Bible in Exodus, 32 & 34

(c) 2012 Rani Calderon

Powered by Gafko & Kiwinet