Bernstein's "Mass"
March 31, 2014 9:07 PM   Subscribe

Written for the dedication of The John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts in 1971, Leonard Bernstein created MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers as a memoriam for John F Kennedy and as a thoroughly modern theater musical piece to reflect both its current times and universal questions of faith and existence. A recasting of the Tridentine Mass (in Latin), featuring additional lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a brilliant lyric quatrain from Paul Simon, the full staging requires multiple choruses, a full stage performance company (including ballet cast), a marching band, a rock band, and many others. The 2012 BBC Proms featured a concert performance [1h56m, including introduction sequences]. MASS has had very few full theatrical stagings since its premiere, although now, over 50 years after its creation, it is beginning to find new acclaim and appreciation. posted by hippybear (10 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I love Bernstein's music. MASS has always had a weird place in his oeuvre for me. It has absolutely brilliant, amazing moments (Simple Song is one of my favorite songs perhaps of all time). But it is not without it's cringe-worthy moments as well. You can sometimes hear Bernstein's midlife crisis in it, how desperately he was trying to reinvent himself and be very hip. It works at times, doesn't at others. Still, it is a real iconic piece of 70s classical music, and so representative of Bernstein's typically genre-bending works.

The piece also really got Hoover's undies in a bunch, so much so that Nixon canceled his attendance at the premiere, iirc. Which is kind of hilarious to me, considering.

This is a great post. Thanks!
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:28 PM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks for posting this. I was the sound engineer on a college production of MASS a couple years back and got to know the piece pretty well (listening to it anyway, as I rarely had a chance to look up at the stage). It was an insane show to put on, with a 100+ person choir on stage plus singers and dancers and musicians. The score is all over the place and requires a huge number of instruments in various musical styles.

Paul Simon's quatrain is indeed brilliant, which is why I'll quote it here for the benefit of readers who aren't familiar with it. Apparently, Simon sent it to Bernstein as a birthday present:
"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.
The story Lutoslawski mentions about Nixon is also a great one. Apparently, the FBI and the White House got freaked out that Bernstein might slip some embarrassing anti-war message into the Latin text that Nixon wouldn't understand in order to cause a scandal. The New Yorker discussed the relevant Nixon tapes back in 2009. In one great final shot, Bernstein gets the great honor of being labeled a "son of a bitch" by the President over MASS.

If you're looking for a full recording of the piece, I'm fond of Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's version, released in 2009.
posted by zachlipton at 10:29 PM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not a fan of the work as a whole, but it sure has some wonderful music. Lutoslawski already mentioned how amazing and beautiful the Simple Song is. I was actually introduced to the Sanctus and In Nomine Patris / De Profundis in arrangements by the Empire Brass, which really bring out how great the tunes in these pieces are.
posted by straight at 3:18 AM on April 1, 2014

I have been thinking about this seriously since I was in theology school and heard it for the first time, because that school was obsessed with relevance and this was an excellent example of that. I have little emails, a tiny blog post, some notes back and forth, but I have never quite been able to work out what it meant to me. In terms of liturgical practice, how it foregrounds the fraction is completely radical. The tension between the hip language and the good intentions and the natural form of the thing seems important. The abstraction, how it could never quite be used as a mass is interesting. How it works as an example of what was musically in fashion is fascinating. I keep coming back to the (14!!) minute fraction, and this master of the populist melodic form, and his first experiment with dissonance--but the fraction is deliberate, and not an accident. But, that line, about how easily things get broken, it breaks me. This thing is just silly, and a mess, and ugly, and over the top, an absurd example of the worst of 70s kitsch--but it matters, it's earnest, politically naive hope, its innovation of the form, it's often gorgeous beauty, its sumptuous nature, its vernacular language, also--mass as camp theater, is there a better example of the lo camp of the theater and the high camp of the liturgy just fucking each other up beyond recognition. There were so much that needed to be kept in the respect for old ways and the desperation for newness that occurred post V2 for the Catholics, and post Carter Haywood for the Episcoplians, and you can see similar things in Lutheran and Presbyterian conversations. An ambition that failed seems to be better than church music now that has no ambition what-so-ever (I am looking at you Marty Haugen), plus it has boy sopranos (like Britten) and how can you ever hate Church music that has Boy sopranos. (singing a simple song that is difficult to sing, that isn't simple at all--that is all ornament and omanapeia.

I think it needs to be recovered, written about, performed in churches, split apart and returned together....

Here is what I wrote when I first heard it:

five thots on berstein's mass

old radicals tend to have this fond kitsch, see the revival of the black panthers or soviet kitsch, nothing gets dated faster then those who wish to upend the world, so although this was v. dated, i was shocked tht i was shocked
formal reversals w/i a tightly constructed narrative perhaps?
there is everything here, marching bands, callopies, timpani, noise, boys choirs, oboe and flute solos, womens solos, blues and rock singing, there is no attempt to work the chaos, though it does overwhelm
i felt weird how much it affected me emotionally, how raw it made me.
was bernstein the last of those who could be said to be slumming, who the hi/lo dialectic actually mattered?

and here is what I wrote in a theological reflection paper about it the same year i heard it:
Leonard Bernstein's Mass has a a fraction that is about all of the implicaitons of this unmooring—the fraction moves between what is real, and what is theatre; what is accidental and what is on purpose; what can be said, and what is forever left to be unspoken. The Mass is a chaos of barely attached voices, that sometimes works to a bricolouge of competing singles, and sometimes collapses into noise—but the fraction, the fraction collapses all of our reactionary and radical instincts, all of failings, all of our attempts at communion, at desire, and all of that which never occurs—it reminds me of the unruly donnybrook that must have been Christ;'s arrest, and also what happened later.
Let me quote it: “Look....isn't that...odd...Glass shines...brighter...when it's broken...I never noticed that. How easily things get broken. Glass...and brown wine...Thick like blood....Rich like...honey and blood...Hey...don;t you find that funny? I mean it's supposed to be blood,....I mean it is blood....His...” all of those ellipses are not mine, the entire fraction, the 14 minutes of of, the piece, has 73 pauses, 73 ellipses, most of it is stumbling, and most of it is about what cannot be sad, instead of what is said. We are now in the three days that are considered the most holy in the Christian calendar, and these days are assumed to be full of action, but they are as much about what is missing, what is absent, we are reminded more about what we do not have, then what is present, and there is waiting, endless, waiting...

it's a mess but a vital one.
posted by PinkMoose at 4:58 AM on April 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I was absolutely mad about this music when I was in college, a few years after the original company recording came out. The original was on two LP records; I couldn't get enough of the first LP, could hardly care less about the second. I've thought about it now and then over the years, and about getting a new copy.

The show must have been put on sometime during my stint at Washington State University between 1974 and 1978 (I don't remember seeing it), because I remember one acquaintance of mine preparing for it. She was a voice major, a very, very conservative Christian, and I remember how she seemed to glow when talking about the Mass, how much she enjoyed learning the music and preparing for the performance. It was my first lesson in how art can transcend dogma, given half a chance.
posted by lhauser at 5:46 AM on April 1, 2014

I saw a couple of my friends in a production of Mass a few years back, and it was a glorious riot. Some of it has become a bit dated, but there's nothing wrong with that. If there's one place music is allowed to be dated, it's in a traditional form like the Mass, even if it's a reworking of that form.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:11 AM on April 1, 2014

hippybear, that BBC performance you linked to is pretty great, better than I've heard before, I think. Thanks.

But I have to admit a bit of disappointment watching it because I always pictured at the beginning of the "Simple Song" the priest having an electric guitar slung around his neck and actually strumming the chord himself that cuts off the (purposely) impenetrable Kyrie. Because that seems like such a perfect icon for post-Vatican II music.

PinkMoose, I wonder if my failure to be moved by the piece in the way you were is because I can't help seeing the thing through the lens of (to my mind) the pathetic failure of most post-Vatican II attempts to revitalize church music. (The worst part about Marty Haugen is that his music just isn't quite even bad. It's barely good enough that no one demands an alternative.)
posted by straight at 8:40 AM on April 1, 2014

There is something very much about the failed utopia in the project, which is why i love it and why it makes me sad. And yes, you are right about Marty Haugen.

Can we spend the rest of the thread talking about how horrible he is?
posted by PinkMoose at 9:45 AM on April 1, 2014

I'm in the middle of the BBC performance.

Watching it now after having not listened to it in some years, it's hard not to notice just how much of a showoff Bernstein was. He really was a master, had an enormous musical vocabulary, and really was the sort of synthesizer (in the sense of mashing up really disparate musical vocabularies in a creative and elegant way) he imagined himself to be. You get the sense that the music the orchestra is making is pretty close to the music in his head, which is the mark.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:41 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I think, in some ways, our current mashup culture makes listening to Bernstein at the full expression of his powers a bit more palatable then it might have been when it first came out. We're much more capable of hearing styles layered together and expect things to be a bit jarring and then having our brains tease it out into something coherent than we were 50 years ago.

I could see the MASS finding a really large audience today, without nearly all the kerfuffle it created when it was first presented.
posted by hippybear at 10:12 PM on April 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

« Older Note: pineapple is an abomination against the...   |   RIP Frankie Knuckles. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments