Leonard Bernstein
A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers
An Inktroduction
by Peter GutmannPictures from the Leonard Bernstein Tribute Page

Michelangelo had the Sistine Chapel, James Joyce his Ulysses, D. W. Griffith Intolerance – the one crowning project in which inspiration, resources and freedom combined to enable a visionary artist to pursue virtually any goal he wished. For Leonard Bernstein it was Mass.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Leonard BernsteinMass was commissioned to inaugurate the Washington, DC John F. Kennedy Centre in 1971 as a national showcase for the performing arts. Funded by the late president’s family, cost was no object and the eager composer’s unfettered imagination ran rampant. As ideas accumulated, the result coalesced into what Bernstein called “a Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers,” and indeed the work required over 200 performers, including choirs, soloists, rock combos, bands, a full symphony orchestra and the Alvin Ailey dance troupe.

>Above/Right: Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ reaction to MASS – “Lenny: I loved it, yes I did. and I love you too — Thank you for making MASS so beautiful. – Jackie”

To create such a work, Bernstein drew upon one of the most variegated careers in music, including those of a virtuoso pianist, symphonic composer, Broadway tunesmith, conductor, writer and teacher. It’s fair to say that no other musician of his generation, or perhaps of any generation, could have produced such a work. The timing, too, was propitious – having set aside composition and his beloved theatre for a decade to head the New York Philharmonic, the irrepressible urge to indulge these essential parts of his creative being came bursting out upon his retirement.

In Mass, Bernstein attempted to universalise the Catholic ritual in order to explore the spiritual crisis of our time. All the sections of the traditional ritual are there, but interspersed with decidedly non-traditional observations and challenges. While arguing with God is an accepted part of Jewish theology (which Bernstein had exploited in his 1963 “Kaddish” Symphony), many Catholics were shocked at applying such rhetoric to the immutable truth and order of their mass. Indeed, when a Cincinnati production was announced the following year, the local Archbishop condemned the work as blasphemous and forbade Catholics to attend.

MASS ANNOUNCES its intentions with mind-expanding harshness, as four loud, incompatible percussive settings of the Kyrie bombard the audience from quadraphonic speakers located in the corners of the auditorium. The cacophony is silenced by a guitar chord, which begins a disarmingly sweet and naive song of praise by a blue-jeaned folk singer. Donning vestments, he becomes a Celebrant. Throughout the next 80 minutes segments of the ensemble careen through a phenomenal profusion of music and moods – marches, meditations, opera arias, Broadway songs, blues, hymns, narration, scat, Hebrew prayers, gospel, folk, rounds, electronic dissonance and even a kazoo chorus. While all of this sounds like an unholy mess on paper, everything flows together miraculously, unified and vitalized by Bernstein’s overwhelming humanism and staggering creativity.A scene from the original production of MASS: Alan Titus (Celebrant) in prayer Unable to satisfy the crowd’s raucous demands for peace (Dona nobis pacem), the Celebrant ultimately shatters the sacraments, professes his confusion in a grand-operatic mad scene, babbles irrationally and slips back into the mass of performers. The end is one of those outrageously corny but deeply moving gestures that only an ardent sentimentalist like Bernstein could possibly pull off. After its wide-ranging explorations and relentless assaults on tradition, the work concludes with a ravishingly gorgeous, richly harmonized hymn for universal peace. As the cast drifts into the audience to spread a touch of benediction, Bernstein on tape intones the final words: “The mass is ended; go in peace.”

CRITICS AT THE TIME hated Mass, reviling it as “derivative and attitudinizing drivel,” “subliterate rubbish,” “pretentious and thin,” “cheap and vulgar.” Even the shimmering ending was attacked as “Love Love Love Love Love as a solution that may not be questioned.” But Bernstein’s ultimate vindication lay not with emotionally dead sophisticated cynics but with the people – when the original cast recording was released it flew to the top of the classical charts and in a recent Billboard compilation it remains the best selling multiple-record classical album of all time. And even if parts of Mass were clearly a product of its time, replete with now-dated references to hippies, draft resisters and jailed war protesters, who in the last 25 years has found a better solution to the problems that still haunt us than “Love Love Love Love Love?”During the remaining two decades of Bernstein’s life, Mass was often dismissed with indulgence as a bizarre eruption of the artist’s notoriously huge raging ego. Now that Lenny’s gone and we can view his extraordinary career from a perspective of hindsight, Mass emerges as his artistic testament into which he poured his uninhibited genius without restraint. Bernstein lavished on Mass an incredible wealth of fine melodies, exquisite harmonic progressions and innovative detail. Even the rhythms are consistently challenging, with many sections written in meters of 5 or 7 (a mock-gospel sermon even alternates between stanzas in 7 and 9!). Its vast sweep, lavish casting, innovative staging and breathtaking ending were an apotheosis of Bernstein’s brilliant sense of theater.

bernstein5.jpg 175x223 That one man could be so thoroughly conversant with so many disparate musical styles and could blend them all together with such consummate ease is the ultimate testament to Bernstein’s eclectic genius. And despite all the secular elements, the lasting impression is profoundly religious, exalting the joy, probing the challenges and ultimately hallowing the timeless comfort and peace of pure and sincere faith. A distillation of Bernstein’s prodigious talent, Mass is nothing less than the artistic bequest of a man who spent his life storming the barricades of musical routine and pouring into his music his huge love of humanity and life itself in all its glorious facets.

Fortunately, Bernstein recorded Mass with the original Kennedy Center forces shortly after the premiere. It remains a unique experience, not only for its authenticity, but for a far simpler reason – while fragments occasionally have appeared elsewhere, it’s never been recorded again.

After a decade of CD neglect, Sony has now restored Mass to circulation as part of its on-going Bernstein Century edition (SM2K 63089). As with most CD reissues, the packaging and libretto are pale and diminished reflections of the original LP box, but the music itself sounds just fine.

Given the speed with which Sony deleted its Bernstein Royal Edition only a few years ago, you’d better grab this one fast. You probably won’t care for all of it, but it’s so diverse that I guarantee some great discoveries awaiting your pleasure. You may not enjoy the entire sightseeing trip, but when you finish you’ll know you’ve been to a very special place. And the best part is that no two listeners are apt to agree on their favorite portions.

Perhaps Bernstein himself had the last word on the subject when he concluded his final Norton Lecture at Harvard University on a beautiful and touching note. Exploring the relationship between music and language, the wide-ranging lectures were entitled “The Unanswered Question” after the astoundingly prescient and allusive tone poem of Charles Ives. Bernstein ended by saying that he no longer knew what the question was, but that he was sure of one thing – the answer was “yes.” Perhaps that’s the key to understanding Mass — it may not resolve any of the pressing issues of our era — or even of its own era — but it remains an awesomely wide-ranging and magnificently affirmative work of art.

Peter Gutmann is a communications attorney in Washington, DC. Psst — wanna buy a radio station?

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