How Bernstein Came to 'MASS'

Leonard Bernstein receiving applause

Photograph of Leonard Bernstein at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 1971. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

How did Leonard Bernstein, raised in the Jewish faith, come to write a monumental work based on the Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass?

Bernstein had long contemplated composing some sort of religious service. While known primarily for his secular and symphonic work, he had published short Jewish motets during his early days in New York, and in 1965 was commissioned by the Southern Cathedrals Festival in England to write the "Chichester Psalms."

He composed his "MASS" at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in 1971. Bernstein loved and admired the late president, for whose inaugural gala he had composed and conducted a fanfare. He conducted the music at the president’s funeral, and in 1963 dedicated his Symphony No. 3 ("Kaddish") to the president's memory.

Kennedy's assassination only added to Bernstein's profound desire to "make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." He characterized "MASS" as an attempt "to communicate as directly and universally as I can a reaffirmation of faith."

The Tridentine Mass served as the core ritual for Catholics for over four centuries. These prayers are vehicles for petition, praise and affirmation. In Bernstein's setting, he seeks to challenge and question the meaning of the original prayers by inserting tropes, or commentaries, between each movement. The tropes build dramatic tension throughout the work by questioning authority, and by commenting on contemporary issues, in particular the Vietnam War.

Musically, "MASS" is one of Bernstein’s most eclectic works, utilizing various forms, timbres and compositional styles, from gospel to jazz to pop.

Having only a short time to compose this work, Bernstein called upon Stephen Schwartz, the young composer and lyricist who had recently premiered the musical "Godspell" on Broadway. Schwartz was charged with writing many of the dramatic tropes, such as "I Go On" in response to the "Our Father":

When my courage crumbles, when I feel confused and frail, 
When my spirit falters on decaying altars and my illusions fail,
I go on.

Another massively popular young songwriter, Paul Simon, provided text to challenge the core tenets of faith expressed in the "Credo":

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.

By the time Bernstein wrote "MASS," he had been under investigation by the U.S. government for 20 years. An 800-page FBI file documented his leftist activities and beliefs about war, inequality and racism. In the summer of 1971, the FBI informed the White House of a meeting between Bernstein and Daniel Berrigan, a left-wing Jesuit priest who had been imprisoned for destroying draft files. While the meeting was simply part of Bernstein's research for "MASS," the FBI believed that he was plotting to insert subversive anti-war messages into the Latin texts, and advised President Richard Nixon to stay home from the premiere.

That premiere took place Sept. 8, 1971, conducted by Maurice Peress and choreographed by Alvin Ailey. The performance was fully staged with over 200 participants. At the completion of the work, a three-minute silence engulfed the house, followed by a 30-minute standing ovation. Those in attendance embraced fully the last words of the libretto, as sung by the presiding priest, "The Mass is ended. Go in peace."

— by Robert Duff, Associate Professor of the Practice and Director of Choral Programs

This excerpt appeared originally in the Winter/Spring 2018 issue of State of the Arts.