Mass (A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and
Dancers) is one of Bernstein's least produced works,
certainly in Europe anyway. I was fortunate enough to attend the U.K. premiere* in 1989 (eighteen
years after its first performance) which took place in Old St. Paul's Church in Edinburgh's Old Town,
a wonderfully ornate and atmospheric pre Reformation church;. a fabulous setting for Mass. At the
time I had not heard any music from Mass and was bowled over. It remains one of my favourites of
Mass was commissioned for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.
"I've always wanted to compose a service of
one sort or another, and I toyed with ecumenical
services that would combine elements from various religions and sects, of ancient or tribal
beliefs, but it never all came together in my mind until Jacqueline Onassis asked me to write a
piece dedicated to her late husband...I suppose part of the reason that the Catholic Mass
became the spinal structure -- unconsciously, perhaps -- must have had something to do with the
Kennedys and because John F. Kennedy was America's first Catholic president. But I've always
had a deep interest in Catholicism in all its aspects, its similarities and dissimilarities to Judaism
as well as to other religions. The Mass is also an extremely dramatic event in itself -- it even
suggests a theater work."
Bernstein started composing at the beginning of
1970 but faced a heavy world-wide touring schedule.
Three months before opening night he was desperate for the collaboration of a lyricist and found
Stephen Schwartz, whose Godspell had just opened. Within a month the show was virtually finished.
Final preparations began for a show with a cast of over two hundred: orchestra, vocal soloists, child
choir, adult choir, dancers and on-stage instrumentalists. Parts of the show were pre-recorded in
Opening night on September 8th 1971 was attended
by Rose Kennedy, John F. Kennedy's mother,
Edward Kennedy and other members of the family as well as a number of the Capitol's political elite.
President Nixon had declined to attend in part due to his dislike of Lenny's 'Radical Chic' politics. The
critics gave it a mixed reception but on the whole positive. What Lenny had achieved was his best blend
of serious and popular music and a tour de force in the musical presentation of a wide range of Western
musical styles, still bearing the Bernstein hallmark.
Below is an article from the above mentioned 1989
production written by Christopher Bell and Michael
Richardson, the music and stage directors. It is an interesting article for several reasons, one of which is
the insight it gives at the beginning into the problem Lenny faced at times due to his tonal beliefs, which
were at odds for a long time with the politically correct serial critics and commentators. For a long time he
was out of fashion. Only now is fashion repositioning and tonal music regaining the dominant position
(thanks in part due to Philip Glass, John Adams and the other minimalists). Interestingly Aaron Copland was
also affected and turned to serial composition with Connotations. A second interesting point is that they
believe that with so many influences and on such a grand scale it shows Lenny's most major failing, a lack
of a truly personal voice. This was a common opinion of Bernstein. I don't agree with this statement and
Humphrey Burton in his 1994 biography also calls it Lenny's most original work.
MASS - The Man, the Music
by Christopher Bell and Michael Richardson
Bernstein is out of fashion. A paradox perhaps, considering that he
is the composer of one of the most
famous Broadway musicals; yet this is so if we are to believe the deluge of critical opinion that bombards
us as this major American figure of twentieth century music moves through his seventies: "His music is
derivative, bombastic, self-indulgent." Yet even his severest critics are unable to dismiss him outright,
whilst his most ardent fans are unable to give him whole-hearted support. Many composers have been
out of fashion; reading the literature and the reviews of Mahler symphonies at the beginning of this
century, one would be forgiven for wondering how these pieces have become so popular latterly. An
examination of Mass shows just why the world divides its opinions on Bernstein; and also why some of
his pieces have made him both famous and infamous.
"What's a Jewish boy like you doing writing a Mass?" asked Maurice Peress,
the conductor of the first
performance. "We have to educate ourselves. We have to learn more about it" was Bernstein's reply.
The first audience must have doubted whether he had learnt anything about it. A Roman Mass in Latin is
interspersed with texts in the vernacular as a commentary upon them: (this idea must have been stimulated
by Britten's War Requiem where the movements of the Requiem Mass were interspersed by Wilfred
Owen's poetry.) The texts in Mass, by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz, seem sacrilegious and anti -
Catholic; sacred rituals seem cheapened: and all this in an opera house dedicated to J.F. Kennedy, a very
At face value, Mass appeared blasphemous, and Bernstein outrageous, dramatic, highly opinionated, and
politically motivated, with an enormous ego that thrived on attention, would certainly have relished the outrage
that the Catholic Church and the Kennedy family would have displayed.
What was Bernstein doing ? Central to the piece is the solitary figure of the Celebrant, and he provides the
key to the whole philosophy of the work As the Mass progresses, this central figure becomes more and more
distanced from the people (Street Chorus), as he is elevated into a God-like figure by the establishment. He is
out of touch with reality, built up by the dogmas and traditions of the Church, and the people's need for him to
be there. The tension builds as the Street Chorus becomes more frenzied. They turn against the Celebrant,
and then against each other; at the highest pitch the Celebrant smashes the holy vessels, thus sacrificing the
position he has attained in an attempt to restore order. The consequences of his actions are so dire that he is
pushed into self-examination and re-evaluation. Some parallels are obvious, not least that the central character
could be Jesus, whose actions in the Temple must have been equally dramatic, and who sacrificed Himself to
save His people. Less obvious and more controversial, is the thought that Bernstein intended himself as the
Celebrant, as the famous conductor who moves from simple song to the conventions and shackles that the
position as Conductor of the New York Philharmonic entailed. This is the best explanation for why the Roman
Mass contains a section in Hebrew called Kaddish; the work is to some extent biographical. There are however,
other explanations for this inclusion: a reference to Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony, which had been dedicated
to Kennedy ten years earlier; or perhaps a reminder from the 'Jewish boy' that without our Judaic roots
Christianity would not exist.
At a deeper level, Mass is also a child of its time. In the late sixties, the political climate in America was highly
charged: Nixon invading Cambodia; 50,000 people marching on the Pentagon demanding peace and Woodstock,
with its drugs/music/peace formula combining to give an atmosphere of react and demonstrate. We know that
Benstein intended the symbolic confrontation of authority to shock and embarrass Nixon's government, Nixon
himself being out of touch with the sentiments of his people. So the Street Chorus sing : We're fed up with your
heavenly silence, And we only get action with violence, so, If we can't have the world we desire, We will have
to set this one on fire. Similarly the chanting of the anti-war slogan 'dona nobis pacem' (give us peace) in the
Agnus Dei is a direct attack on the U.S. administration which didn't have peace very high on its list of priorities:
the details of the fighting in the UK of 1989 may be very different to the US of 1971, but the underlying message
is the same.
What of the music, drawing together as it does from a wide variety of styles from Orff, Shostakovitch and
Stravinsky, to folk, blues and Jazz ? Bernstein is extremely capable of writing in these styles, and especially in
those nearest to his love, the theatre; yet the dilemma in Bernstein's music is that the inspirational conductor,
who is at home with so many styles of music on the podium, and whose imagination is filled with a vast repertoire
of music, can only echo other composers when he seeks to gain immortality through his compositional legacy.
His debt to War Requiem is greater than in format alone, and many other voices spring out of the score;
undoubtedly in the Broadway style Bernstein had his own edge to add, but a convincing voice of his own
elsewhere is lacking.
The ultimate irony is that a piece which is acknowledged to show Bernstein's character reveals both the vast
and fragile ego of the man, and the crisis in his compositional voice. He wants so much to be loved, to be
something for everyone, yet in constructing Mass with so many obvious musical influences, and on such a
grand scale, he displays his most major failing, the lack of a truly personal voice. The theatre and spectacle
is as big as one would expect from the man, and the music is effective, exciting and dramatic. Perhaps these
grand gestures hide the man's true character, or maybe it is fully displayed for all to see.
* Timothy Ball's email input is that the U.K. premiere took place in
1977 in London with the CBSO and
students from the University of Warwick.
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