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MASS was created for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. on September 8, 1971. It was directed by Gordon Davidson with additional texts by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz, sets by Oliver Smith, costumes by Frank Thompson, and choreography by Alvin Ailey.
MASS's exploration of a crisis of faith, along with the connection to President Kennedy, echoes Bernstein's Third Symphony, Kaddish. In 1963, Bernstein was in the throes of orchestrating the final movement of Kaddish, when the news came of Kennedy's assassination. Unhappily, fate dictated the dedication: "To the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy." Bernstein wrote this symphony using the Hebrew prayer often associated with mourning ("Kaddish"), but the Kaddish prayer never once mentions the word "death." On the contrary, it celebrates "life." Like MASS, Kaddish evokes a universal sense of anguish over hope and faith, as well as the particularly Jewish practice of occasionally addressing God in confrontational terms, through its narrator who speaks the text written in English by Bernstein.
In MASS, Bernstein looks at the issue dramatically; it is subtitled "A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers." Bernstein had always been intrigued and awed by the Roman Catholic Mass, finding it (in Latin) moving, mysterious, and eminently theatrical. The piece follows the liturgy exactly, but it is juxtaposed against frequent interruptions and commentaries by the Celebrant and the congregation, much like a running debate. There is stylistic juxtaposition as well, with the Latin text heard electronically through speakers or sung by the chorus, and the interruptions sung in various popular styles including blues and rock-and-roll. On the narrative level, the hour-and-a-half-long piece relates the drama of a Celebrant whose faith is simple and pure at first, but gradually becomes unsustainable under the weight of human misery, corruption, and the trappings of his own power.
Written at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the work's cultural importance became intertwined with its political significance in Richard Nixon's Washington. The President did not attend the opening, but did send staff to rehearsals, who reported back that there were possibly "coded messages" in the Latin text! While the work is certainly anti-war and calls on "you people of power" to do what is right, it is not overtly political. It is unquestionably religious.
MASS is an enormous piece. It calls for a large pit orchestra, two choruses plus a boy's choir, a Broadway-sized cast (with ballet company), marching band and a rock band. It may seem ironic that such multitudes are marshaled for a work that celebrates a man's "Simple Song": his love and faith in God. But in the end, that simplicity is shown to be all the more powerful because of it.