Moses und Aron has its roots in Schoenberg's earlier agitprop play, Der Biblische Weg (The Biblical Way, 1926-27), which represents a response in dramatic form to the growing anti-Jewish movements in the German-speaking world after 1848 and a deeply personal expression of his own "Jewish identity" crisis. The latter began with a face-to-face encounter with anti-Semitic agitation at Mattsee, near Salzburg, during the summer of 1921, when he was forced to leave the resort because he was a Jew, although he actually converted to Protestantism in 1898. It was a traumatic experience to which Schoenberg would frequently refer, and of which a first mention appears in a letter addressed to Kandinsky (April 1923): "I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me this year, and I shall never forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but that I am a Jew."
Schoenberg's statement echoed that of Mahler, a convert to Catholicism, some years earlier: "I am thrice homeless: as a Bohemian among Austrians, as an Austrian among the Germans, and as a Jew throughout the entire world. I am an intruder everywhere, welcome nowhere."
The Mattsee experience was destined to change the course of Schoenberg's life and to influence his musical creativity, leading him first to write Der Biblische Weg, in which the central protagonist Max Aruns (Moses-Aaron) is partially modelled on Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism; then, to proclaim in Moses und Aron his uncompromising monotheistic creed; and finally, upon his official return to Judaism in 1933, to embark for more than a decade on a relentless mission to save European Jewry from impending doom. Der Biblische Weg should be considered as both a personal and political play. Moses, at the center of the biblical Exodus story had become from the time of Heine to that of Herzl and Schoenberg, the ideal incarnation of a national and spiritual redeemer.
From the sketchy outline of the play (1926) to its final version (1927) and to the inception of Moses und Aron as an oratorio (1928) and then into an opera, it was composed between 1930 and 1932. Despite its unfinished status it is widely regarded as Schoenberg's master work.
(Note: Schoenberg's title may have omitted an 'A' in Aaron's name because the composer was a severely superstitious triskadekaphobe. "Moses und Aaron" would have caused the title to have a total of 13 letters.)
Schoenberg always intended to finish the work, and the two acts were not performed until after his death. There was a concert performance in Hamburg on 12 March 1954 with Hans Herbert Fiedler as Moses and Helmut Krebs as Aron, conducted by Hans Rosbaud. The first staging was in Zurich at the Stadttheater on 6 June 1957, again with Hans Herbert Fiedler as Moses and conducted by Hans Rosbaud, but with Helmut Melchert as Aron.
Georg Solti conducted the first performance at the Royal Opera House, London on 28 June 1965. The singers were Forbes Robinson (Moses) and Richard Lewis (Aron). The American premiere was produced by Sarah Caldwell's company in Boston Back Bay on 30 November 1966 with Donald Gramm and Richard Lewis, conducted by Osbourne McConathy. (The Metropolitan Opera did not stage it until 1999.)
Act III (Late in Schoenberg's life, the third act is unfinished as said above. It has only one scene.)