Was Bernstein's MASS a mess? 50th anniversary reappraisals say 'no'

The “People’s Chorus” in the Ravinia Festival’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS; photo Patrick Gipson, courtesy the Ravinia Festival

The American societal upheaval of the late 1960s and early 1970s found its perfect artistic expression in Leonard Bernstein’s MASS, a music-theater piece which premiered on Sept. 8, 1971, christening the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. A highly controversial and wildly eclectic creation, MASS soon came to be viewed as hopelessly dated and artistically inert, all but vanishing from view for decades.

Prompted in part by the 2018 centennial of the composer’s birth, high-profile performances of MASS started a reappraisal of its merits, a process now accelerating as its 50th anniversary approaches. From Wednesday, Sept. 8 through Oct. 6, the Ravinia Festival’s highly acclaimed presentation of MASS will be available for viewing via Passport, the online streaming service available to PBS members. (Membership requires a minimum annual contribution of $60 and is available through newmexicopbs.org.)

The Ravinia production premiered in 2018 and was so popular that the festival immediately made plans to revive it the following year. Taped by PBS, the presentation featured almost 300 performers, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Children’s Choir, and the Highland Park High School Marching Band, among others. Its only solo role, the Celebrant, was taken by Paulo Szot, the Brazilian-born opera baritone who won the 2008 Tony Award for best leading actor in a musical, thanks to his portrayal of Emile De Becque in South Pacific.

Marin Alsop, a Bernstein protégé who is now one of the music world’s most high-profile advocates for her mentor’s work, was the conductor. In a 2018 interview with the Chicago Tribune, she said, “I really think — for me, anyway — it’s really a high point in his output ... It’s an apex of Bernstein — not only the composer, but the community activist, the politically conscious citizen of the world. Maybe that’s why I love it, because it’s about him, not just as the great musical genius he was, but as a human being.”

Bernstein had written a fanfare for John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Inauguration in 1961, and several years later Jacquelyn Kennedy Onassis commissioned a new work from him to inaugurate the Kennedy Center. He based the work on the Roman Catholic Church’s highly ritualistic Tridentine Mass, perhaps as an homage to President Kennedy’s faith.

With a firm date for the Kennedy Center opening on the horizon, and pressed for time (as always), Bernstein enlisted the help of Stephen Schwartz, Godspell’s composer-lyricist, to write some of the text and lyrics for MASS. Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar both date from the same year (1971) and reflected the era’s discontent with the structure and dogma of traditional religion.

Bernstein never intended to write an actual church service — the full title of his composition is MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers — and he used the Catholic rite to create a drama of faith by combining it with a Jewish religious tradition (“wrestling with God”) which is one of the meanings of the word “Israel.” In MASS, the Celebrant represents traditional religion as he wrestles with the skepticism expressed by a “People’s Chorus” over issues such as the Vietnam War. His own doubts soon overwhelm him, and the Celebrant destroys the altar. Eventually all the participants rediscover the joy of faith expressed through music in “Sing God a Simple Song,” and MASS ends with the words “Go in peace.”

In an interview with Vogue shortly before MASS premiered, Bernstein described his reasons for writing the piece. They mirror his own nearly unquenchable optimism, as well as his insistence on being a “politically conscious citizen of the world,” as Alsop described him.

“If I weren’t convinced that there was a way to solve all this [the world’s problems] I would simply jump out of the window and wouldn’t worry about it anymore. But I am convinced that somehow, miraculously, through the rediscovery of man’s rational power, and maybe through the appearance of leadership, we’ll be able to make it. That’s really why I’m writing MASS. It’s the only way I can contribute to what I hope is rationality in these times.” 

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Thank you for joining the conversation on Santafenewmexican.com. Please familiarize yourself with the community guidelines. Avoid personal attacks: Lively, vigorous conversation is welcomed and encouraged, insults, name-calling and other personal attacks are not. No commercial peddling: Promotions of commercial goods and services are inappropriate to the purposes of this forum and can be removed. Respect copyrights: Post citations to sources appropriate to support your arguments, but refrain from posting entire copyrighted pieces. Be yourself: Accounts suspected of using fake identities can be removed from the forum.