The oratorio Die Jakobsleiter (Jacob’s Ladder) occupies a special place in Schoenberg’s output. One of his most substantial works, it is also a profession of faith in terms of both its words and its music. Although Schoenberg was obsessed by this project for over half his life, he was unable to complete it. By the time he died, he had composed only about half of it, and it was his former pupil Winfried Zillig who prepared a performing edition of the score. Astonishingly, it still gives the impression of being complete. The work revolves around one of the key questions in Schoenberg’s life: that of humankind’s spiritual perfection and the possibility of achieving transcendence in our earthly existence.
The work’s title relates to an episode in the Book of Genesis. Jacob has cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright as Isaac’s first-born son, and is now fleeing his vengeance. He spends the night in Haran: “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac.” This dream has been represented in countless images, and is seen as a symbol of the prospect of a spiritual ascent.
“For a long time, I have been wanting to write an oratorio on the following subject: Modern man wrestling with God.”
Before, during and after the First World War, Schoenberg felt that everything in which people believed was being overturned. He felt that it was only religion that had saved him from a nervous breakdown. It was during this period that he first began to plan an oratorio that was inspired by Jacob’s dream.
Schoenberg himself explained in a letter of 13 December 1912 that he wanted to show how “modern man, having passed through materialism, socialism, and anarchy and, despite having been an atheist, still having in him some residue of ancient faith (in the form of superstition), wrestles with God […] and finally succeeds in finding God and becoming religious. Learning to pray!” In the end Schoenberg wrote his own words for Jacob’s Ladder, and between 1917 and 1922, he set the first part of what had been planned as a two-part work. He also composed the interlude. But in spite of several attempts to continue the setting, he was unable to add anything substantially new.
“Modern man” – not a Biblical or a historical character – is subject to various tests in Jacob’s Ladder. These tests are judged by the Archangel Gabriel, whose motto is this: “You have to continue on your path without asking what lies in front of you or behind you.”
The chorus is divided into several groups and reacts to events with striking urgency, its members often interrupting each other and assuming manifold roles as they express their discontent, their doubts, their jubilation, their indifference and a meekness that Schoenberg describes with a precision that is almost pleasurable. The characters themselves are not individuals. Rather, they represent certain types: a man who has been called (in the Biblical sense) a rebel, a man who is wrestling with God, later a monk, and finally a dying man. All of them are to varying degrees fallible. Gabriel shows them the limitations of their past struggles.
Meanwhile, a man who has been chosen appears. He has progressed further than the others; he is to inspire them, and lead them on their road to heaven. Schoenberg believed that this person was the embodiment of the artist, possibly even himself. Each of these characters has his own section in the score, each of them assuming the aspect of a chapter in a book. And each of these sections is individually characterized. Because of the work’s fragmentary nature, what had been intended as a “grand symphonic interlude” became the final movement. The second part of the work would have shown the characters following the road that leads to common prayer. It is hard to imagine a more striking setting of this turn of events than the vocalises on the word “Seele” (“Soul”) towards the end of the interlude. They die away in the stratosphere on their upward journey to heaven.