About this Piece
Even in a time of horrors and happenings, 1971 stood out as a tumultuous year. The air war in Vietnam escalated and ground combat spread to Laos and Cambodia, India and Pakistan went to war, Algeria nationalized all French oil and gas companies within its borders, 42 people were killed in a five-day riot at the Attica prison in New York, and violence in Northern Ireland worsened. Lt. William Caley, Jr. was found guilty of premeditated murder in the My Lai massacre, and Charles Manson was convicted of murdering Sharon Tate. The United States devalued the dollar, and President Nixon ordered a 90-day wage and price freeze to curb inflation. The passing of artists and cultural figures as diverse as Igor Stravinsky, Louis Armstrong, Rockwell Kent, Bennett Cerf, and Coco Chanel seemed to signify the end of an era.
This was also the year when 18-year-olds received the right to vote in the U.S. and women received that right in Switzerland. Conceptual art and the "Jesus Movement" became much-hyped forces in American culture. Rock producer Bill Graham closed his legendary Fillmores East and West, but in September the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts opened in Washington, D.C.
The Kennedy Center was to be a presenter of a broad range of performing arts, and for its inaugural event it turned to Leonard Bernstein. Then 53, Lenny was the iconic American man of music, acclaimed as a conductor and composer of concert and theater music. He delivered Mass, "a theater piece for singers, players, and dancers," just barely in time, finishing some of the numbers only days before the preview performances. Gordon Davidson directed the new piece, Alvin Ailey choreographed it, and Maurice Peress was the conductor.
Mass was certainly a child of its time. The instrumental forces included rock and blues bands; there were adult and children's choirs, and a large group of singer/dancer "street people." The lead role was the Celebrant, the priest officiating in a traditional liturgical Latin mass, with extensive additional texts by the composer and Stephen Schwartz, whose recent Godspell was clearly influential, as were other contemporary shows such as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. (Schwartz has written some new lyrics for tonight's production.)
Concept musicals such as Stephen Sondheim's Company also provided an important context for this plotless depiction of spiritual trauma. The problem of finding God in a seemingly godless world was an issue that Bernstein grappled with often (his 1963 "Kaddish" Symphony, which was dedicated to the memory of JFK, previewed many musical and thematic elements of Mass). During the course of the mass, the Celebrant's faith is challenged repeatedly, leading to a hallucinatory breakdown, before reconciling faith and doubt in the communal joy of praise.
"It has all the qualities of a dramatic work, catastrophe and climax, all those terms out of Aristotle," the composer wrote. "The ritual is conducted by a young man of mysterious simplicity (called the Celebrant) who throughout the drama is invested by his acolytes with increasingly ornate robes and symbols, which connote both an increase in the superficial formalism of his obligation and of the burden that he bears. There is a parallel increase in the resistance of his congregation - in the sharpness and bitterness of their reactions - and in the deterioration of his own faith. At the climax of communion, all ceremony breaks down and the mass is shattered. It then remains for each individual on the stage to find a new seed of faith within himself through painful meditation, enabling each individual to pass on the embrace of peace (Pax) to his neighbor, ultimately with the audience and hopefully into the world outside."
Mass begins with the traditional Kyrie eleison prayer, its words disembodied on tape, singers matched with percussion. Musical themes that will be treated throughout the work are broached, most importantly the little three-note motif heard immediately on the glockenspiel and xylophone. It will come back many times, not only in this movement but throughout Mass at key points, a matter of affective recall as much as of musical integration. The clamor is abruptly broken off by the entrance of the Celebrant, who sings "A Simple Song," probably the best-known single number from Mass. The taped voices return with contrapuntal scatting, which is explosively interrupted by the entrance of the Street Chorus and accompanying band, singing a fresh Kyrie. A children's choir and boy soprano extend the movement, its festive joy further expressed with whistling and kazoos. It leads directly into the rigorously polyphonic exuberance of the Thrice-Triple Canon, which in turn gives way again to taped voices and instruments as the choir files in, taking the part of the congregation. The choir sings a prayer in English as an a capella chorale, and a taped Epiphany for a flitting oboe brings the gathering portion of Mass to a close.
With the Confession, sin enters this idyllic world of praise and celebration. Choir and orchestra begin with brutally hammered polytonal chords, but the ritual quickly loses force. Three guitars introduce the "Mea culpa" section with a swinging (semi-)serial riff. The choral chanting resumes, blasting its final "Orare pro me" (Pray for me) as a thunderous, rather hysterical demand. Two cynical songs, the heavy R & B "I Don't Know" and the supple blues "Easy," interrupt the choir, annexing its music with vernacular swagger and replacing devotion with doubt. The orchestra reflects ambiguously on these unsettling developments in the first Meditation.
The Gloria attempts to recapture the earlier joy with the bongo-driven "Gloria tibi," a vivacious call-and-response anthem for the Celebrant and the children's choir. The adult choir brings in the "Gloria in excelsis," a rhythmically chanted rumble of abrupt harmonic and dynamic contrasts. The Street Chorus continues this music with another trope, "Half the People," on a four-line lyric Paul Simon gave Bernstein as a Christmas present. This sarcastically opposes the liturgical Gloria with the "Glorious Living" (not part of Simon's lyric) of contemporary life. The second trope of this section, "Thank You," is a quiet reverie on lost grace for solo soprano. The second orchestral Meditation darkens this rumination with fresh layers of musical doubt, based on the nearly atonal passage Beethoven wrote in his Ninth Symphony for the phrase "Ihr stürtzt nieder, Millionen?" (Do you bow down, O millions?), questioning the absence of reverence.
At the end of the Meditation, altar boys bring in a large Bible. In the Epistle section, the Celebrant reads letters from the Bible, which are contrasted with contemporary letters. The Celebrant sings about the power of the Word of the Lord, on a tune from the Chilean folksinger Violetta Parra, which Bernstein discovered through his wife, the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre. But a Preacher jumps to deliver the sassy, increasingly irreverent Gospel-Sermon, "God Said." Here the Word is twisted to human ends in a brutal parody of the "Gloria Tibi," becoming an orgiastic dance stilled only by the appearance of the Celebrant.
The Credo should be the ultimate statement of faith. Here though, the Latin creed is hammered out on tape by choir as an almost serial row and its inversion, interrupted with angry/ despairing troped contradictions. The "Non Credo" picks up the intervals from the tape and puts them into a rock bass ostinato (with that persistent three-note motif in the guitars). "Hurry" revisits elements from the Confession section, "World without End" uses the inverted form of the Credo chant, and "I Believe in God" finishes it off with a wailing demand for attention.
The ensuing Meditation and Offertory offer little comfort. Bernstein's setting of Psalm 130, "De Profundis," is musically graphic, the initial pleas rumbling up out of the basses and breaking into a rhythmically regulated clamor - with the three-note motif prominent on the words "audi vocem meam" (hear my voice). The Celebrant and altar boys continue to prepare for communion as the choir blasts the remainder of the Psalm in highly dissonant chords, leading into another dance "with fetishistic passion," the score ordains. As with the dance at the end of the Gospel-Sermon, the reappearance of the Celebrant freezes the action. He picks out a hesitant Lord's Prayer at the piano and then offers his own trope, "I Go On." The music, accompanied by clarinets, is more ambiguous than the determination he expresses, but it ends with a recollection of the gentle affirmations of praise from the end of "Simple Song." He and the children's choir attempt to restore the bright joy of the beginning in the Sanctus, which includes its own instrumental dance, a vernacular trope (for the Celebrant), and a non-liturgical but completely apposite (and thoroughly Lenny) interpolation of a choral "Kadosh Adonai."
To no avail. The Street Chorus turns the Agnus Dei prayer into a savage repudiation, hurling "Dona nobis pacem" as a defiant, sarcastic insistence on "peace now," replete with the threat of violence if their demand for peace is not met. By the end the Celebrant is shattered, a spiritual breakage reflected physically when he dashes the communion vessels to the ground. The Fraction section is his mad scene, a psychological and musical recombination of themes and motives from almost every previous portion of Mass into a distillation of anguished doubt and despair.
Into the depressed silence that follows, a solo flute injects that three-note reminder and reprises the oboe's Epiphany solo. A boy soprano begins "Simple Song," only now it is a "secret song." He picks up the gentle Lauda, Laude call to praise and begins to pass it throughout the singers and instrumentalists, and ultimately to the Celebrant, who has returned unobtrusively, dressed as he was at the beginning. Mass closes with a reprise of the choral "Almighty Father."
Despite the sophistication of the musical organization, the dizzying stylistic array, and the huge forces involved, the simple song prevails. As Nina Bernstein has written: "In the end, the Celebrant, on the verge of renouncing his faith, finds that the loneliness of his doubt is no match for the joy of gathering together with other believers in praise." Or as her father wrote in the original Kennedy Center program, after some acknowledgments: "As to any further program-note of an analytical nature, I hope that none is necessary, since the intention of Mass is to communicate as directly and universally as I can a reaffirmation of faith."
- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Director of Publications.
I. DEVOTIONS BEFORE MASS
1. Antiphon: Kyrie Eleison
2. Hymn and Psalm: "A Simple Song" (Jubilant Sykes)
3. Responsory: Alleluia
II. FIRST INTROIT (Rondo)
1. Prefatory Prayers
2. Thrice-Triple Canon: Dominus Vobiscum
III. SECOND INTROIT
1. In nomine Patris
2. Prayer for the Congregation (Chorale: "Almighty Father")
2. Trope: "I Don't Know" (Tom Parker)
3. Trope: "Easy" (Reva Rice, Christian Anderson, Nikki Crawford, Kristofer McNeely, Armelia McQueen)
V. MEDITATION No. 1 (Orchestra)
1. Gloria Tibi (Jubilant Sykes)
2. Gloria in Excelsis
3. Trope: "Half of the People"
4. Trope: "Thank You" (B.J. Ward)
VII. MEDITATION No. 2 (on a sequence by Beethoven)
VIII. EPISTLE: "The Word of the Lord" (Jubilant Sykes)
IX. GOSPEL-SERMON: "God Said" (Todd Hunter, Preacher)
1. Credo in unum Deum
2. Trope: Non Credo (Ben Davis)
3. Trope: "Hurry" (Paula Newsome)
4. Trope: "World without End" (Joan Ryan)
5. Trope: "I Believe in God" (Noah York)
XI. MEDITATION No. 3 (De Profundis, part 1)
XII. OFFERTORY (De Profundis, part 2)
XIII. THE LORD'S PRAYER
1. Our Father…. (Jubilant Sykes)
2. Trope: "I Go On" (Jubilant Sykes)
XV. AGNUS DEI
XVI. FRACTION: "Things Get Broken" (Jubilant Sykes)
XVII. PAX: COMMUNION ("Secret Songs")