Hidden from small

A Kaleidoscopic Mix of Music, Dance, and Theater - The Philadelphia Orchestra Prepares for Bernstein’s MASS

March 05, 2015

Musical works, like the composers who create them, often take on lives of their own, rising and falling in popularity, with works scorned by one generation being celebrated by the next—and vice versa. The vicissitudes of taste, and the social and historical circumstances that influence it, over long stretches of time, make predicating a musical work’s ultimate stature a fool’s game, but it was not for nothing that Gustav Mahler famously predicted, “my time will come.”

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Leonard Bernstein at the premiere of MASS. Photo courtesy the Leonard Bernstein Office

Leonard Bernstein’s MASS, commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy as the work that would inaugurate the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., was a mixed success at its world premiere, on September 8, 1971. It was, on one hand, as extravagant a spectacle as one could want for the opening of a major arts center: Its soloists, choruses, and ensembles moved around a set by Oliver Smith, in costumes by Frank Thompson, with Gordon Davidson directing, and Alvin Ailey as the choreographer. And much of the first-night audience went wild, giving MASS, according to some reports, a 20-minute ovation. 

Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Orchestra and numerous soloists, choruses, and ensembles in MASS, April 30-May 3. 

But even before that applause faded away, critics were second-guessing the work, debating the subjects it touched on—Bernstein’s setting goes far beyond the traditional bounds of the Roman Catholic Mass—and dissecting Bernstein’s music. And though the score was recorded shortly after the premiere, and was performed several times in the 1970s and ’80s, it mostly slipped into the oblivion that is the fate of so many contemporary works, laying nearly untouched until its 40th anniversary approached and a generation of younger musicians gave it a fresh look, and recognized it as a milestone in Bernstein’s catalogue. Still, even critics who admired the work from the start recognize that it remains, as Peter G. Davis put it in a 2008 New York Times article, “possibly [Bernstein’s] most flamboyant and controversial creation.”

Philadelphians will have an opportunity to reconsider the work for themselves when Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads The Philadelphia Orchestra, the Westminster Symphonic Choir, the Temple University Concert Choir, and the American Boychoir and soloists in a production of the work, with staging by Kevin Newbury, April 30 through May 3. The performances, part of the Orchestra’s Requiem series (on the grounds that the work was written as a memorial to President John F. Kennedy, even though it is not a Requiem as such), will be The Philadelphia Orchestra’s first encounter with the full score. But the ensemble has performed excerpts from MASS over the years, and concertgoers with long memories will recall that a touring version of the Kennedy Center production visited the Academy of Music in June 1972.

Photo from the original 1971 production

There can be little doubt that Bernstein knew the work would have both its partisans and its detractors. MASS is, after all, packed with dualities and conflicts, and was intended to make people respond. And responding meant taking sides, not only about the issues MASS raises, but about the work itself, since as settings of the Roman Catholic Mass go, Bernstein’s is unusually eclectic, philosophically as well as musically.

The issues that MASS raised, and the nerves it touched, were plentiful and varied, and though time has given the work a patina that makes it seem less abrasive than it did in 1971, the issues are no less vital. A central one is religious. Bernstein drew on the traditional text of the Mass, as a tribute to Kennedy, the nation’s first Catholic president. But as a man who grappled all his life with questions of faith and its meaning, he could not help but fill MASS with meditations on those very issues. The tension between the acceptance, questioning, and even the outright denial of faith fills this piece. At its climactic moment, the Celebrant throws the cross and chalice to the floor, smashing them in frustration.

Bernstein’s thoughts about these tensions are incorporated in some of the notes he made while working on the piece.

"Some religion necessary to every man—belief in something greater than random/systematic biological existence. Existentialism fails for this reason (in its chic aspect of post-war French philosophy)—Religion(s) of peace, militancy, social progress, self-discovery, love-dependency, other-identification. Altruism is a kind of religion. So is anarchy. God=idea=elan vital. COMMITMENT."

Photo from the original 1971 production

It also touches on Bernstein’s peace activism. American soldiers were still fighting and dying in Vietnam when MASS had its premiere, although public opinion had turned against the war, and against the government for continuing to fight it. Bernstein used the piece to put a spotlight on the plea for peace—“Dona nobis pacem”—that has always been part of the Mass text, amplifying it through insistent repetition, and filling it out with ideas from Father Daniel Berrigan, a Roman Catholic priest who was a prominent anti-war protester, and who Bernstein visited in prison while he was writing the work. The FBI, which had maintained a file on Bernstein since the early days of his conducting career, alerted the White House that the composer might use MASS as an anti-war protest—actually, Bernstein had hardly made a secret of this—and President Nixon’s advisors suggested that he avoid the premiere and any embarrassment it would cause. In the end Nixon stayed away, saying that the evening was rightly Jacqueline Kennedy’s, and that he did not want to steal the spotlight.

If the work’s meditations on faith and pacifism were flashpoints, so was Bernstein’s music. Any listener familiar with Bernstein’s symphonic works will hear the melodic thumbprints of his style here. The hallmarks of his popular theater style are here as well; indeed, the brassy verve of West Side Story is heard clearly at several points.

Photo from the original 1971 production

But Bernstein did not confine himself to those two styles already associated with him. His scoring includes not only an orchestra and a “formal choir,” but also a “street choir,” a blues band and a rock band (each with a synthesizer), and a quadrophonic tape containing brief but central elements of the work, musical and spoken. Almost immediately, after the angular, ritualized “Kyrie” and “Christe,” Bernstein injects a note of contemporary folksiness in “A Simple Song,” a tuneful hymn sung by the Celebrant. And later—after we’ve heard from the blues and rock bands in their own idioms—we hear a touch of jazz, in the smooth style of the Swingle Singers, in Bernstein’s setting of the “Alleluia.”

A musical populist at heart, Bernstein had long championed rock music in interviews and in his Young People’s Concerts television broadcasts, and he clearly welcomed the nascent “rock musical” style that had yielded Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) and Godspell (1971).

MASS, in fact, is more clearly in the tradition of those theater works than part of the line of classical Mass settings from Machaut onward. Bernstein described the work as “A Theater Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers,” and when he needed extra lyrics, he turned to Stephen Schwartz, one of the creators of Godspell. Naturally, he saw the value of couching the social issues he wanted to raise in a theatrical setting. But he also recognized the inherent theatricality of the Roman Catholic Mass, with its ancient roots in the Jewish Temple service—a point he alluded to by setting the “Sanctus” in English (“Holy! Holy! Holy!”), Latin (“Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus”), and Hebrew (“Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh”).

Leonard Bernstein in 1971

This combination of styles Bernstein drew on, and the restlessness with which he moved among them, spoke volumes about his goals—what he wanted to say, who he wanted to reach—but in 1971, it left some critics confused, even angry. Harold C. Schonberg, then the chief critic of the New York Times, paid Bernstein a backhanded compliment by saying that “Bernstein at his best has always been a sophisticate, a composer of skillful lightweight music who can turn out a snappy tune or a sweet-flowing ballad,” and calculating that about two-thirds of MASS fit that bill.

But then he took off the gloves, noting that Bernstein’s serious works have always “tended to sound derivative” and that in MASS, the musically serious sections are “as thin as the watery liberalism that dominates the message of the work.” And it got worse: “At times, the ‘Mass’ is little more than fashionable kitsch,” Schonberg wrote. “It is a pseudo-serious effort at rethinking the Mass that basically is, I think, cheap and vulgar. It is a show-biz Mass, the work of a musician who desperately wants to be with it. So this ‘Mass’ is with it—this week. But what about next year?” 

Interestingly, the musical eclecticism that Bernstein fostered here, and that Schonberg found so objectionable, is now more firmly in style that it was in Bernstein’s day, although today’s version blends the influences of jazz, rock, and symphonic music more seamlessly than Bernstein did. Still, here it is, 44 years later, and MASS is singing again, having been taken up by a new generation of musicians and projecting its message to a new generation of listeners.

“In the end,” Yannick Nézet-Séguin said in a recent interview, “the message of this piece, which I believe Bernstein wanted to convey, is a very ecumenical message, which is that all the human beings, whether or not we have our own personal beliefs, we all come together, striving for a certain harmony and a certain common goal.”

Allan Kozinn writes frequently about music and musicians.