Leonard Bernstein’s Mass

Bernstein-MassLights! Camera! Kyrie! Sounds rather theatrical, doesn’t it? Some might even say disrespectful. It’s no surprise, then, that Leonard Bernstein’s Mass generated so much controversy at its premiere in 1971. Thirty-five years later, the controversy is muted.

When we think about the interface between ritual, spectacle, and worship, the Mass makes a lot of sense. The spectacle involved in worship is quite deliberate: it is meant to fill the senses with the glory of God. Think, for example, about the origins of the Western theater tradition in the Greek festival of Dionysos. It’s not something that’s limited to the West, either — anyone acquainted with the arts of non-Western cultures cannot miss the multimedia character of their celebrations and the fundamental role that religious observance plays in them. To ignore these examples, and the possibilities inherent in the rituals of our own age, is to diminish the impact of worship.

There is, in American art music, a line of what essayist Habakuk Traber terms “American Independents,” which, now that I think of it, encompasses most American composers of any note, from Charles Ives to Terry Riley and Lou Harrison. It’s an approach that makes use of vast resources and influences — a melting pot of music, so to speak, with borrowings from non-Western traditions, vernacular sources, avant-garde explorations, and the classical and romantic traditions and has led to a stylistic heterogeneity that itself has become a characteristic of American music. In Bernstein’s case, this includes a wealth of musical ideas, from the chilling opening to “Devotions Before Mass,” reminiscent in some ways of Gyorgy Ligeti, to passages (and there are many) that make use of the idiom of the Broadway stage.

These sources are not, however, synthesized in any real sense, not, for example, the way Bartók took the structures of folk music and absorbed them into forms of concert music. Rather, Bernstein juxtaposes them and lets the resonances develop from these juxtapositions. (Traber points to the “Gloria,” with elements of Gregorian chant, modern dance music, and perhaps a foreshadowing of rap. The result is intriguing and rich.) To give an admittedly rough idea of Bernstein’s means, the performers include soloists (forty of them, operatic as well as blues and rock singers, both live and prerecorded), a boys’ choir, an adult chorus, an organist, a special effects director, and a symphony orchestra.

The basic form is that of the Catholic Mass; needless to say, Bernstein took liberties. While the liturgy provides the bulk of the texts, additions were created by Stephen Schwarz, the librettist for Godspell. (Paul Simon also made a small contribution.) Bernstein did some rearranging: the Kyrie, which in my experience begins the mass proper, in Bernstein’s version is an element of the prefatory section, while he collapsed the parts of the liturgy devoted to the message and to the mystery into one section.

It sounds like a hodge-podge. It’s not. Traber calls it a melding of two important strands in Bernstein’s work the musical expression of, on the one hand, religious experience, and on the other, the portrayal of the needs of people in everyday life. I would cast it in slightly different terms, just to bring those ideas into a closer conjunction. Call it a balancing act between the transcendent and the mundane that provides bridges between the two while acknowledging their separateness.

Bernstein himself recorded the Mass shortly after its premiere. It’s always problematic to me whether a composer’s own recording of his music is necessarily the most desirable one. Obviously the creator’s thought is right there; however, another interpreter might uncover nuances of meaning that the composer either had not considered or merely assumed. In this case, not having heard Bernstein’s version in years, and not having that clear a recollection of it, I can only say that I have no objections to Kent Nagano’s rendering. He shows himself fully deserving of his reputation as an outstanding conductor, with an excellent sense of the architecture of the work and sure control of its disparate elements.

My only possible objection is that this is only a sound recording. As the subtitle — “A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers” — makes plain, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass was conceived as a stage work and to be fully appreciated, that’s the way it should be experienced. However, I have to say it’s nice to have the chance to explore the musical part. But I want the whole circus.

(Harmonia Mundi, 2004)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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