On 8 September 1971, the inauguration audience for the brand-new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts experienced the world premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. 2021 is therefore a double birthday: for the Kennedy Center and for MASS, its inaugural piece.
The broad spectrum of reactions to the premiere of MASS were an apt mirror of the political and social unrest of that era. Audiences either embraced or bristled at the work’s unabashed anti-war message; critics were divided about the work’s exuberant eclecticism; and the Roman Catholic Church withheld its approval – some cities, under pressure from their local diocese, even cancelled planned performances.
I did not write MASS to be controversial. It was written to be stimulating, provocative and moving. I don’t write works for money or to instigate controversy.
Five decades later, MASS is no longer seen as controversial, but as a visionary, prescient work, embraced by presenters, artists, and audiences worldwide. Even the Catholic Church came around: in 2000, Pope John Paul II requested a performance of MASS, which took place in the Vatican amid a sea of red-robed bishops.
Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz, who collaborated with Bernstein on the lyrics in MASS, in 2018 said,
Working with Leonard Bernstein on MASS was one of the most exciting experiences of my professional life, and I learned so much from my collaboration with him. MASS was first done in 1971. If you had asked me to bet on how well is this going to age, I would’ve said no. It’s so much Vietnam war and protest – just of the period. I don’t think this is going to be one of the pieces of Lenny’s that really will live on and on, but I was wrong. It really has aged enormously and, to me, surprisingly well. It has to do with the fact that musically – how he was thinking about classical music or whatever you want to call it – was ahead of its time, and now time has caught up.
Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center, Bernstein chose to base the work on the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass, to honour and memorialize the Center’s namesake, who was the nation’s first Roman Catholic president.
Bernstein told John Gruen,
I’ve wanted for some years to write a religious service of some kind. In the course of thinking about this, the Kennedy Center commission came up and perhaps unconsciously the association of the name Kennedy seemed to point a ray of light toward the Catholic service…. I’ve veered toward writing a Mass because the Mass is probably the most dramatic and theatrical religious service there is. My MASS is a stage work, although when I hear myself saying that it’s a Mass, I begin to question myself, because it isn’t a Mass in the sense that it’s usable in a church as a Mass. And it isn’t a concert Mass in the sense of one by Beethoven or Mozart or Bach. It’s a stage work that is at the same time about a Mass. It’s very hard to describe. It’s a piece of theatre that I hope will accomplish something similar to what a Mass accomplishes in a church…
Bernstein and Schwartz envisioned the piece as an exuberant fully staged dramatic pageant. The work mixes sacred and secular texts, using the traditional Latin liturgical sequence as the framework, and inserting contemporary English lyrics that question and challenge the prescribed service. Bernstein’s score combines elements of musical theatre, jazz, gospel, folk, and rock music, while also employing a rich symphonic palette that ranges from 12-tone serialism to subtle quotations from Beethoven’s Ninth.
The opening performance of MASS in the Opera House – directed by Gordon Davidson, conducted by Maurice Peress, and choreographed by Alvin Ailey – featured over 200 participants. In addition to the large pit orchestra, Bernstein’s work featured two choruses, a boys’ choir, a Broadway-flavored “Street Chorus,” Ailey’s dance company, a marching band, a rock band – and the work’s protagonist, the Celebrant.
The Vietnam War – as well as the shadow of the Holocaust, the Cold War era’s threat of nuclear annihilation, and the ongoing struggle for civil rights – were all very much on Bernstein’s mind as he composed MASS. The work expresses the composer’s deepest personal doubts about the institutions of government and religion and questions his own spiritual beliefs – but ultimately serves, according to the composer in a 1971 program note, as a “reaffirmation of faith.”
The Nixon Administration had multiple reasons for being reluctant to celebrate the opening of the Kennedy Center. The President’s advisors eventually talked him out of attending the opening, telling him there was a “secret message” hidden in the Latin text, deliberately inserted to embarrass the President. The line was merely “Dona nobis pacem” (‘Grant us peace’), from the standard liturgical text.
In Gramophone magazine, Edward Seckerson wrote:
MASS is in so many ways the ultimate protest piece. But equally, it’s a piece about Bernstein’s own crisis of faith. It’s about intellectual rigour versus religious dogma. It’s about enlightenment versus blind acceptance.
All humankind inhabits MASS – and all manner of music. A bewildering array of styles in scintillating juxtaposition. Music, says MASS, is Bernstein’s one true religion. Its diversity and fervour can move mountains, it can transcend political, social, religious barriers, heal divisions.
The Kennedy Center will present a fully staged new production of MASS in September 2022, featuring the National Symphony Orchestra, along with 2020 Marian Anderson Award winner Will Liverman as the Celebrant. Over the coming months, US television stations will schedule broadcasts of Great Performances: LEONARD BERNSTEIN MASS, the Ravinia Festival’s highly acclaimed 2019 production conducted by Marin Alsop and featuring Tony Award winner Paulo Szot as the Celebrant. PBS Passport is also making the program available online for free streaming from September 8 to October 6, 2021.
Sony Classical will celebrate MASS’s half-century mark by releasing the original recording of the work, conducted by Bernstein himself. In collaboration with the Leonard Bernstein Office, this remastered 2-CD plus hardcover book edition will include numerous photos and facsimiles, the full text, and new liner notes by music journalist Edward Seckerson.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.