'Mass: a Theatre Piece' by Leonard Bernstein Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Mass: a Theatre Piece' by Leonard Bernstein

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Mass: a Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers was written at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC, and was given its world premiere there in 1971. 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...

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 similiarities 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.

Mass follows the liturgy faithfully, but the liturgical text is interrupted with commentary and debate from the Celebrant and the congregation, sung in various contemporary popular styles such as rock 'n' roll and blues. In such interpolation of secular material in the liturgical texts, and in certain other ways, Mass recalls Benjamin Britten's War Requiem.

Mass requires over 200 performers, comprising a pit orchestra (strings and percussion plus a concert organ and a 'rock' organ); an on-stage orchestra (brass, woodwind, keyboards, electric guitars, etc) whose members are in costume and form part of the cast; singers and dancers forming a chorus of 'street people'; and a robed choir (mixed). There is also a boy choir and a boy soprano solo.

The Cultural Context of the Mass

In Mass, Bernstein used the Catholic ritual to explore the concerns and uncertainties of the era. Bernstein started work on it as the 1960s were closing. This was the era of Vietnam and Cambodia. Nixon replaced Johnson as US president. John F Kennedy had been assassinated, then assassins' bullets had found Robert F Kennedy and Martin Luther King. There were peace demonstrations and waves of student uprisings (particularly at Ohio State University and Kent State University). There was the 1969 Woodstock Festival, when 'Three Days of Peace and Music' became an icon of free love, drugs, youthful hedonism and the anti-war culture.

These issues were very important to Bernstein and were a strong influence on the content of Mass. As with many of his compositions, he sought to bring together diverse elements of style, genre, tradition and people in a theatrical communication that would reflect the problems and aspirations of these troubled times. And Mass is an eclectic amalgamation of elements including Carl Orff, Beethoven, Mahler, Copland, blues, rock, jazz, Broadway, spirituals, Catholic liturgy, Protestant hymns, Jewish blessings and modern lyrics by Bernstein himself and by his collaborator Stephen Schwartz1. Yet the way in which these elements are drawn upon has convinced a major Bernstein biographer that Mass is Lenny's most original composition.

The Structure and Themes

Mass opens stridently with four loud and disparate percussive settings of the Kyrie hurled at the audience from a quadraphonic tape broadcast from the four corners of the auditorium. The Celebrant appears, calming the chaos as, wearing blue jeans, he plays a guitar and sings the praises of God.

Blessed is the man who loves the Lord,
Blessed is the man who praises Him...
And walks in His ways.

Then the 'street people' enter. Victims of 'the system', they question the belief system, values, faith and outlook of the Celebrant. They sing, in rock style, of their despair: they do not understand their own feelings, they don't know what is real and what isn't. Then they go on to sing, in blues style, of the emptiness and hypocrisy of the world.

The blue-jeaned guitarist has donned the priestly vestments to become the Celebrant. But he becomes more and more confused and discouraged by the bitterness and disillusionment of the crowd. As a passage of text contributed by singer/songwriter Paul Simon says,

Half of the people are stoned
And the other half are waiting for the next election;
Half of the people are drowned
And the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.

The Gospel Sermon continues the theme of innocence that gets corrupted by hypocrisy:

God said: Let there be light,
And there was light.
God said: Let there be night,
And there was night...

God said take charge of my zoo
I made these creatures for you;
So he won't mind if we
Wipe out a species or two...

God made us the boss
God gave us the cross
We turned it into a sword
To spread the word of the Lord
We use His holy decrees
To do whatever we please.

The crowd yells desperately for peace - Dona nobis pacem - but the Celebrant is falling apart and cannot cope. He shatters the sacraments and the sacred vessels, and tears off his vestments, babbling irrationally and melting away into the crowd.

The end of the Mass has a solo flute on stage, joined by the singing of a boy soprano. Then the entire cast comes on stage, singing a ravishingly harmonised sentimental hymn for universal peace. The cast share embraces and the 'touch of peace' among each other, then disperse into the audience to share the peace with them too, as the final words of the Mass are intoned on tape: 'The mass is ended: go in peace'.


Predictably for such an eclectic and confronting work, reaction to Mass has been mixed. Certainly the audience at the first performance was deeply affected, and at the end of the piece continued to applaud for nearly 30 minutes while Bernstein himself moved among the cast, hugging and kissing all 200 participants in gratitude. The New York Times wrote:

There were those who dismissed the MASS out of hand as vulgar trash, saying derisively that it was worthy of the building. There were those who were distressed about the treatment of the Catholic liturgy, especially at the moment where the Cross is destroyed. There were those who said that Bernstein had put his finger exactly on what ails the Church today, and that his MASS was a relevant commentary on religious problems. And there were those, especially among the youthful members of the audiences, who screamed and applauded and cheered and cried and said that it was the most beautiful thing that they had ever heard.

When it was announced to the public that Catholic University in Washington would perform Mass to inaugurate not only the Great Room in the new Pryzbyla University Center, but also the first President's Concert, University President Fr David M O'Connell said he received many complaints. The complaints deemed the musical as 'irreverent' and 'sacrilegious'. Someone asked, 'How could The Catholic University of America justify presenting a performance that depicts such a crisis of faith?' But Fr O'Connell responded to this question, saying, 'If The Catholic University of America, of all places, cannot address crises of faith, who can?'

Some Catholics regarded the work as an attack on the Church and its traditions, and the Archbishop of Cincinnati forbade Catholics to attend a performance of Mass there. It was also condemned as blasphemy. Yet such strictures were not universal among Catholics. Shortly after attending the premiere of Mass, one Catholic priest in Washington DC spoke in his sermon of:

The Roman Catholic Mass interpreted by a Jew with such sensitivity and awareness of the social situation of our world today and with deep insight into the anxieties of the clergy. A Mass that was so incredibly honest that it hurt. A Mass out of the old pattern, with a new approach of articulating our needs for a God and a Saviour, our needs for communion with one another in a world where there is much that is broken... The times I personally wonder what things are important, what things are real - what does one give to the people to give them strength, joy and the spirit of love? - sometimes it becomes confusing. What is just tradition and what is real? Bernstein again presents profoundly and honestly these anxieties felt by all men.

And in June 2000, Mass was performed in the Vatican to celebrate the World Jubilee for Migrants. An audience of 8000, led by a row of cardinals, was admitted free of charge, and the performance was also relayed to the crowds in St Peter's Square on giant screens.

The conductor of the premiere performance, Maurice Peress, said:

The point of the piece is that the celebrant suddenly abandons us, leaving us to bring peace to ourselves and to the world. I wanted to tell Lenny he couldn't do that. It was an anti-war piece. Nixon was in the White House. People were scared.

Because of Mass, Nixon refused to attend the opening of this prestigious opera house and arts centre in the US capital city. No doubt he felt it would be politically inexpedient to be associated with such an anti-war event.

Mass is a cry for peace that speaks directly to our emotions - the kind of experience that leaves no one unmoved or untouched in some way. Its relevance extends far beyond the confines of the era in which it was written, and its political significance and cultural importance - to say nothing of its amazing music - make it one of the central works of 20th Century American music.

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