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Peter G. Davis wrote an unusually detailed review of the Columbia recording of Bernstein's MASS. It was published in High Fidelity Magazine in February 1972 and titled "The Religious Composer":
To echo Leonard Bernstein elsewhere in this issue, I hardly know where to begin. Having seen MASS at the Kennedy Center premiere last fall and now after listening to Columbia's recording of that production, I find it difficult to focus on any one aspect of such a rich and highly complex work. On one level MASS is a brilliant piece of theatrical entertainment--the original dramatic conception, the dazzling musical variety, and the sheer creative exuberance of it all literally leaves one's head spinning. But there is a great deal more operative here than smooth show-biz glitter, and aside from the deeper emotional responses provoked by the piece's spiritual tone (and most of Bernstein's major works are of a religious nature), MASS functions as an extremely sophisticated, carefully controlled musical entity that repays close scrutiny. This element was rather overlooked in the critical brouhaha following the Washington performances, and it seems to me worth emphasizing in the brief description of the work that follows.
The essential structure is that of the Roman Mass as sung and played by a choir and a pit orchestra. To this Bernstein has troped in several elements that both elaborate and comment upon the Latin text and give the work a specific dramatic direction: these include--on stage--a blues band, rock band, street chorus, and a Celebrant. The Celebrant is the central figure and we first meet him, after an introductory four-part Kyrie (on quadraphonic tape), simply dressed, strumming a guitar, singing a "simple song" of disarming lyrical beauty in praise of God. In fact, these opening three sections (Devotions before Mass, First and Second Introit) paint a scene of happiness, faith, peace, and primal innocence with a "Swingle-Singers" bell chorus, a high-stepping street band second Kyrie as the Celebrant frisks with the choir boys and receives his first investiture, and a Bachian chorale for the entire congregation.
Clouds start gathering as the Confession begins. The ominous Confiteor erupts with 12-note harmonic violence--after the choral/chordal onslaught, a slightly sinister row appears as a swinging trio for guitars and finger snaps at "Mea Culpa." Two blues songs, one heavy and the other easy, interrupt the choir: Sung by soloists from the on-stage street chorus, these lyrics are riddled with doubt, confusion and cynicism. How naturally Bernstein takes the thematic and rhythmic material of the "serious" portions of the score here and weaves them into his idiomatic "popular" style; but this is the kind of technical prestidigitation that gives MASS its formal glue and keeps the dizzying eclecticism from getting out of hand.
An orchestral Meditation for strings, organ, and percussion lets us digest the disturbing Confession before the equally unsettling Gloria--the songs here show how "glorious" contemporary high living takes the true glory out of life. A second Meditation follows and the depression deepens--this music is based on a halting from the choral movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, a stumbling, tonality-less (eleven non-repeating notes) sequence that Beethoven wrote to highlight the words, "Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?" (Have you been cast down, O multitudes?).
The Epistle juxtaposes quotes from the Apostles with contemporary "letters"--from a boy leaving home, a young girl writing of her imprisoned husband. This ties in with the Gospel-Sermon, a song of coruscating mordancy telling of man's arrogance as he twists the word of the Lord to his own devices ("God made us the boss,/ God gave us the cross,/ We turned it into a sword,/ To spread the word of the Lord,/ We use His holy decrees,/ To do whatever we please,/ And it was goddam good!").
A pounding 12-note row for chorus opens the Credo and again the four Non-Credo, defiance-of-God rock songs grow cunningly out of the intervals of the recurring rondo[-]like row. Those initial descending fifths, for example, are transformed into an obsessive ostinato for Fender bass at "Et homo factus est" ("You, God, chose to become a man, To pay the earth a small social call"), and, in their inverted form, dominate the vocal line of "World Without End," a breathlessly restless vision of our planet mindlessly spinning in space. This sequence and the ominous De profundis leave the Celebrant shaken, but he restores the remnants of his faith by singing The Lord's Prayer, picking out the accompaniment on the piano with one finger. "I will still go on," he sings and makes a final effort by leading the bright Sanctus; but the entire ensemble overwhelms him with a brutal Agnus Dei (based on the Confiteor strophe, "I don't know"), which reaches peak intensity as the chorus viciously demands "Dona nobis pacem" ("give us peace").
The Celebrant snaps at the climax of this orgiastic cacophony. He destroys the sacramental symbols, tears off his vestiture, babbles vacantly. Everything is fractured: the spirit, its physical symbols, the Mass itself, the text, the music. This fragmented recapitulation is perhaps the most extraordinary moment in MASS: It draws upon all the important musical themes heard previously, until the Celebrant distills his despair into a moving dirge set to the poignant strains of the first Meditation. He then disappears. A solo flute eventually breaks the agonized silence with a shy three-note figure--we have heard this before: It opened the Kyrie and pops up constantly throughout MASS as a reminder of faith and hope. One by one the choristers and musicians join in the final communion with a healing, reaffirming Lauda.
"Honesty" is usually a rather meaningless word as applied to a piece of music, but I can't help being impressed by MASS's unabashed two-fold sincerity. As a composer, Bernstein has worked with many styles and he could have adopted any one of them for MASS; instead he chose the hard way, gathered everything together, and forged a pliant unity from what might have been chaotic diversity. Emotionally, too, Bernstein has left himself wide open--Mass's very candor makes it extremely vulnerable and a sitting duck for the cynical. This is a work that stakes everything. I can think of few creative acts in recent times that take so many risks and achieve so much.
Columbia's recording is a faithful replica of the Washington production in almost all particulars and the spirit of the piece comes across vividly. Of course, in a work where the visual element plays such an important role--it has been virtually composed into the score--something is lost; even so, MASS makes an impressive impact on purely aural terms. Each soloist is superb, most particularly Alan Titus, whose plaintively sweet high baritone and dramatic projection makes the Celebrant an arresting and touchingly human figure. As a recording the results are a shade disappointing and more should have been done to adapt the work to the phonographic medium. Since Columbia only allotted a bare six days to record the entire production--and in two cities (Washington and New York) at that--this was clearly impossible. It's a smooth enough job, but unimaginative considering the possibilities for stage movement and acoustical variety, while the pre[-]taped passages (evidently simply spiced into the recording) are apt to sound a trifle tinny. These are more flaws of omission than commission, and the vitality--of MASS and its talented performers--remains unquenchable.
Harold C. Schonberg did not mince words when he reviewed Bernstein's MASS for The New York Times on September 8, 1971:
There were heated arguments about the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts even before it opened. Wednesday, the big palace on the Potomac was officially inaugurated, with a performance of Leonard Bernstein's MASS in the Opera House. Because of the nature of the music, still one more element about the center will be controversial. Indeed, the arguments had started with the first public rehearsal last Sunday.
There were those who dismissed the MASS out of hand as vulgar trash, saying derisively that it was worthy of the building. There were those who were distressed about the treatment of the Catholic liturgy, especially at the moment where the Cross is destroyed. There were those who said that Bernstein had put his finger exactly on what ails the Church today, and that his MASS was a relevant commentary on religious problems.
And there were those, especially among the youthful members of the audiences, who screamed and applauded and cheered and cried and said that it was the most beautiful thing that they had ever heard.
Leonard Bernstein's MASS, almost two hours long without an intermission, is a very chic affair. It offers a sentimental response to great problems of out time, Musically, it is a stylistic phantasmagoria that uses the fashionable techniques. Amplification, for instance. Everything is amplified, as at a rock concert--the singers, the orchestra, and there is also is lavish use of four-track pre-recorded tape. The result can be ear-splitting.
With this kind of score, it was, of course, impossible to gauge the acoustics of the Opera House. That will have to wait for the performance of the Ginastera opera "Beatrix Cenci," Friday night.
The fashionable elements include orchestrations by Hershy Kay and Jonathan Tunick. The musical ideas all are Bernstein, but as is customary in Broadway musicals, other hands have helped dress them up. By far, the best sections of the MASS are the Broadway-like numbers--the hazy, super-rhythmic sections. Bernstein at his best always has been a sophisticate, a composer of skillful lightweight music who can turn out a snappy tune or a sweet-flowing ballad. That is what has made his work on Broadway so superior. And, fortunately, about two-thirds of the Mass is gay and light-hearted.
But in his more serious music Bernstein has tended to sound derivative. When Bernstein struggles with the infinite, he has generally been thrown for a loss, as in his Jeremiah or Kaddish symphonies. And so it is in the MASS. The serious musical content is pretentious and thin, as thin as the watery liberalism that dominates the message of the work. At the end, both music and text descend into a slick kind of bathos.
For love and the brotherhood of man will not solve our problems. Better housing, jobs for everybody, and adherence to the Bill of Rights will do a lot more. Anyway, the ones who talk loudest about universal love are generally the ones who are the greatest haters. At times the MASS is little more than fashionable kitsch. It is a pseudo-serious effort at rethinking the Mass that basically is, I think, cheap and vulgar. It is a show-biz Mass, the work of a musician who desperately wants to be with it.
So this MASS is with it--this week. But what about next year?
Sermon Preached by the Reverend Richard T. C. Peard, St. Alban's Parish, Mount St. Alban, Washington, D. C., The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 12, 1971
The lights went down, the tension mounted--at first quietly, and then with increasing volume, came solo voices singing from four different speakers--"Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Christe eleison"--all singing at once--the confusion of sounds mounting to a pitch and then suddenly only the sounds of a full, rich, simple voice--not taped, but alive and with only a guitar.
"Sing God a simple song
Make it up as you go along
Sing like you like to Sing
God loves all simple things
And love is the simplest of all."*
Thus began the Leonard Bernstein MASS last Monday evening at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. And thus began a thrilling and moving evening for those witnessing this preview performance. And after this gripping beginning the MASS continued to move and to build. The sound system, the orchestra, the chorus (so flawlessly prepared by our own Norman Scribner), the choir boys, the rock bands, the brass band, the woodwind ensembles, the singers, the dancers and the lead who represented the celebrant, whirled and rocked and shouted and gloriously moved the action of the MASS for two paralyzing hours. The Roman Catholic Mass interpreted by a Jew with such sensitivity and awareness of the social situation of our world today and with deep insight into the anxieties of the clergy. A Mass that was so incredibly honest that it hurt. A Mass out of the old pattern, with a new approach of articulating our needs for a God and a Saviour, our needs for communion with one another in a world where there is much that is broken. This was a Mass that had words that we can all identify--words that we don't say especially in connection with the Sacred Mass--for perhaps in our honesty there would be blasphemy. But Bernstein is honest. Listen to part of the confession:
"What we say, we don't feel
What we feel, we can't show
What we show isn't real
What is real--we don't know.
Come on Lord, if you're great
Show me how, where to go
Show me now--I can't wait
Maybe it's too late Lord
I don't know."*
or part of the creed:
"You said you'd come again
When things got really rough
So you made us all suffer
While they got a bit rougher
Look, I'm no bluffer
And things are tough enough--
So where's your next appearance on the scene?
I believe in one God
But then I believe in three
I'll believe in 20 gods
If they'll believe in me."*
--words that we can hear, the words of life, the spirit of their presentation is different but the spirit is life.
This is a Mass that cries out for peace; "Give us peace" is the chant that becomes louder and louder until the entire cast and chorus are railing and appealing to the celebrant in top volume and with savage music "Dona-nobis-pacem--Give us Peace." And the celebrant can give them no peace, for he too is full of pressures and doubts and finally in one shattering motion at the very height of the celebration he throws down the cross and the cup, smashing them to pieces, as he goes berserk. In his madness he sings: "How easily things get broken. Odd isn't it, I thought the wine was red; it's brown and blue--odd isn't it, broken glass is even clearer."* I can only speak for myself, of course, but I would, wager that most clergy in the house at that point were sharing in and identifying with his anxiety and even his madness... The times I personally wonder what things are important, what things are real--what does one give to the people to give them strength, joy and the spirit of love--sometimes it becomes confusing. What is just tradition and what is real? Bernstein again presents profoundly and honestly these anxieties felt by all men, no matter clergy or laity. Anxiety cannot be ignored even in the Mass.
And, finally, after a long pause, we hear the sound of the flute which begins the final and moving music of reconciliation. Reconciliation, even in the face of knowing that things can be easily broken and that there is very little peace. Nevertheless, reconciliation and hope. Almighty Father, bless us and give us grace. The celebrant, too, is there but only in his regular clothes, as a man, not as a celebrant.
And so the MASS ended, at first a hushed audience, many in tears--I know I was--and then, as you know from the paper, a thunderous 20 minute standing ovation amid the cheers of "Bravo, bravo."
*Reverend Peard did not have access to the text of MASS and obviously relied on his memory of the performance he attended when incorporating these excerpts into his sermon. Although they do not accurately reflect the actual text, in this context they generally capture the essence of Bernstein's intentions. --Ed.