About this Recording
8.559622-23 - BERNSTEIN, L.: Mass (Sykes, Wulfman, Morgan State University Choir, Peabody Children's Chorus, Baltimore Symphony, Alsop)

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)


After his outrageously dynamic 11-year tenure at the New York Philharmonic, during which time he danced from the podium into the telesphere as America’s most beloved music teacher, Leonard Bernstein was anxious to get back to the business of composing. Best known for his Broadway masterpiece West Side Story, he had only produced two works during his legendary leadership from 1958 to 1969: the “KaddishSymphony and Chichester Psalms.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis gave Bernstein an opportunity to get back on the creative track, big time, with an irresistible commission: to compose the inaugural piece for the opening of the newly constructed Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. This was right up his alley. Bernstein wrote: “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…The Mass is also an extremely dramatic event in itself—it even suggests a theater work.”

Bernstein was the quintessential theatrical composer—he even admitted once that even his concert works had a “theatrical core”—and ran with the idea like no other could. So he took the centuries-old, musico-religious ritual, the Roman Catholic liturgy, and dragged it, kicking and screaming into the 20th century, transforming it into a battleground about the contemporary crisis in faith. He called it Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. It had its premiere on September 8, 1971. It is a visionary period piece that gains more relevance as time goes on.

Born of the same Zeitgeist that produced Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, Bernstein’s singularly explosive work, featuring everything from bongos to kazoos, outdid the eclecticism of West Side Story and Candide, while continuing the religious outcries expressed in his “Jeremiah” Symphony and the “Kaddish.” He was thinking bigger than ever. His zany Mass, mixing sacred and secular texts in wacky and original ways, would be a kind of “Symphony of a Thousand” of the Vietnam Era—to invoke the great piece of his hero, Gustav Mahler. It was also his War Requiem, his Carmina Burana, his Symphony of Psalms.

He had about three years to put it together. But six months before the scheduled premiere, Bernstein was in a slight panic because he was in no way close to finished. The born performer in him had not given up his globe-trotting baton, and he was also spending precious creative time working on a film score for Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a “flower power” retelling of the life of St Francis.

Desperate for a collaborator, he tapped his sister Shirley, a playwright agent, who suggested one of her clients, the young, hip Stephen Schwartz, freshly famous for the hit musical based on the life of Christ, Godspell. He was, literally, a godsend, and the two hit it off, working at a delirious pace to make the deadline.

What they concocted was a riveting drama within the framework of the religious service that reflected the cultural malaise going on in America, if not the world, in the early 1970s. The spine of the piece was the standard Roman Catholic liturgical sequence: the Kyrie–Gloria–Credo–Sanctus/Benedictus–Agnus Dei. They amplified and complicated the form by inserting daring “tropes” and serious “meditations” which provided a kind of Talmudic commentary, questioning and challenging the handed-down passages of the service, usually recited without reflection.

Mass weaves within this structure the story of the Celebrant and his “congregation”—which Bernstein calls “street people” made up of singer-dancers—who grow increasingly disillusioned, cynical and exasperated with authority, divine and human. The Celebrant, also plagued with doubt and unable to play an authority figure, has a nervous/spiritual breakdown and commits a blasphemous act by hurling down the holy chalice. Yet this apparent sacrilege leads him back to the simple faith expressed at the beginning of this piece in the glorious A Simple Song.

What is remarkable about this most catholic of Catholic Masses is that despite the kaleidoscopic jumble of styles—blues, rock, pop, Broadway, Middle Eastern dance, symphonic, marching band, contemporary avant-garde atonality, brutism, solemn hymn, dissonant counterpoint, quasi-medieval melismas—Mass holds together as a unified composition. It is not a messy mish-mash, even with the bongos and kazoos.

The opening, three-note Kyrie motif, for instance, reappears in different guises throughout the piece, from haunting oboe and flute “epiphany” solos, to electric guitar riffs. The tritone interval (the augmented fourth), known as the “devil in music,” also runs throughout the piece (as it does in West Side Story). On one hand, it can signify doubt, as in the “I Don’t Know” trope; the tritone is also manifested prominently in the Lydian church mode, which Bernstein cleverly employs in his most tender passages to signify innocence, sung by the boys choir, as in the Sanctus. There is plenty of Bernstein’s signature bouncy lilt of alternating meters.

Mass also features Bernstein’s first use of the rock idiom. Anytime there is some sort of protest, the composer pulls out the electric guitars and “rock” organ (as opposed to the church organ, also used in the piece), appropriately given rock’s association with rage and revolution. And there is plenty of protest and unrest in the piece.

For instance, in the Credo—which means “I believe” in Latin, and is the central tenet expressing belief in one God—the Latin text is dutifully sung in dispassionate, almost machine-like, automatic fashion by a choir on a pre-recorded tape. Right after, a “live” rock band kicks in singing lyrics such as “and then a plaster god like you has the gall to tell me what to do.” That is followed by the trope, “I believe in God / but does God believe in me? I’ll believe in any god / If any god there be.”

The crisis comes to a crescendo in Dona nobis pacem, when the street people defiantly demand peace. Even more in-your-face lyrics are spewed forth, “We’re not down on our knees / We’re not praying,” and later, “We’re fed up with your heavenly silence.” At the time of the original performance this also resonated politically with the anti-war movement in Vietnam. (Remember, Bernstein was a diehard liberal who threw a fund-raising party for the Black Panthers in his Park Avenue apartment in 1970.)

Famous pop icon Paul Simon donated a brilliant quatrain, “Half the people are stoned / and the other half are waiting for the next election / Half the people are drowned / and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction” which sums up the lethargy and confusion of a generation. In the mocking “God Said” section, there are lyrics such as “God said that sex should repulse / unless it leads to results / and so we crowd the world / full of consenting adults / And it was good…

But his Mass is not all groovy counterculture and atheistic rage. Quite the opposite, in spite of the disarming honesty, doubt and indignation. If you listen more carefully, Bernstein is constructing a kind of musical theology. He is making a deeply personal statement about getting lost and finding faith again—the Gospel According to Lenny, you might say.

The fantastic, unforgettable opening of Mass establishes Bernstein’s method and way of thinking. The Kyrie is prerecorded and played in a darkened auditorium, during which different voices and percussion slam up against each other in different keys and tempi. The cacophony is brought to an abrupt, surprising halt with simple open fifths in G major. Thus begins A Simple Song (which is not so simple, and was transplanted from the cancelled score for Zeffirelli’s St Francis film) that introduces the central figure of the Celebrant with guitar in hand. His joyous and uplifting “laudas” soar to the heavens.

That simple song comes back at the end of Mass, against all odds. The mounting chaos of Dona nobis pacem, which finishes with a kind of volcanic jam session, drives the once-content Celebrant to frustration if not madness. He impulsively smashes the holy sacraments, but notices that the spilled wine resembles real blood. “Look, isn’t that odd” he sings in this riveting “Fraction” stretch. His agitated, atonal melody is actually quoting and recontextualizing the quasitwelve tone row found in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

The first time the Beethoven is heard is way back in the first half during Meditation No. 2. Here, Bernstein creates a menacing theme and variations out of Beethoven’s remarkable 11-note sequence. It is important to the overall structure and meaning of Bernstein’s conception.

The clue to this might be found in what Bernstein wrote two years after the premiere of Mass as part of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University, which were televised: “And what about the Finale of Beethoven’s Ninth—that sudden awestruck moment of recognizing the Divine Presence?…Beethoven suspends all tonal harmony, leaving only harmonic implications; that’s what makes it so suddenly awesome, unrooted in earth, extra-terrestrial—so that when earthly harmony does return the incandescent A major triad does indeed cry ‘Brüder!’—Universal brothers, all emerging together from that non-earthly Divinity.”

That startling, enlightening juxtaposition is certainly the model for the opening of Mass, reborn near the end of the searing, soul-searching journey. After the Celebrant’s tormented, tour de force aria during which bits and pieces of what has preceded is recalled (just like those memory quotes in Beethoven’s finale), he is led back to the opening simple song (redubbed “secret song”), intoned by a solo boy soprano, whose angelic voice is the sound of innocence. The Celebrant, a broken man, finds his faith again through this untarnished simplicity, singing in moving unison with the boy.

This is key. That is why Bernstein refused to cut Meditation No. 2, strongly suggested by the show’s original director, Gordon Davidson, and his advisor, Schuyler Chapin, because they thought the show was too long. Bernstein did not budge in the end because that long-range connection had to be maintained.

But even more fundamental than Bernstein’s inspired appropriation of Beethoven is the subtle argument made in Mass that belief in music is a kind of proof of the soul, which strongly suggests a divine presence. In the Credo, the angry rocker gives up on a seemingly absent God, so redirects his belief to the one thing he knows exists: “I believe in F Sharp / I believe in G.” What seems like cutesy self-referentiality actually has deeper implications for Bernstein.

In the Sanctus, the Celebrant picks up on this idea, by drawing clever if goofy connections between solfege syllables and their more meaningful homonyms: “Mi alone is only me. But me with sol. Me with soul. Means a song is beginning. Is beginning to grow / Take wing and rise up singing / From me and my soul.” The music has that wistful yearning that is the hallmark of Bernstein’s style.

In the end, if music originates in the soul and the soul originates with God, then music is as close a proof as we are going to get. Thus Bernstein and his theatrical double, the Celebrant, are led back to God through their belief in music, great mystery and miracle at the center of this radical, revelatory liturgy.

Robert Hilferty

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