Leonard Bernstein’s "Mass" Speaks to Today’s World

“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life, bringing peace, abolishing strife.”

— Kahlil Gibran

Baltimore, MD – Does the spirit of a Mozart, Bach or a Gershwin live on in their memorable works of art? When you hear a brilliant rendition of one of their pieces, are they there, too? Well, the other night, Oct. 16, 2008, at the celebrated Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in this city, I felt like the ghost of Leonard Bernstein made an appearance, and it was a happy one, indeed. The “Mass” was one of Bernstein’s most controversial compositions. Its source was the Roman Catholic Mass. The program was entitled: “Mass–A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers.” It was superbly conducted by Ms. Marin Alsop, with the symphony orchestra at the top of its game. At one point, there were 250 people “on stage.” This included the orchestra, a college choir, a marching band, a children’s chorus and a “Street Chorus.” Ms. Alsop studied under Bernstein earlier in her career and considered him “a mentor.”

My first and only personal experience of the genius that was Leonard Bernstein was on Jan. 8, 1984, at the fabled Washington Cathedral in our nation’s capital. The occasion was “A Concert for Peace.” Bernstein conducted a performance of Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection,” (Symphony No. 2). It was a perfect match. Bernstein loved Mahler’s works and helped to make them popular.

A mixed chorus from D.C. and Baltimore were under the maestro’s baton that night. One member of the chorus told me, on a ride over to the event, that Bernstein didn’t do anything “half measure.” The rehearsals were “as if,” it was the real thing, she said. He was “full throttle.” That kind of intentionality showed up in the live performance. I could swear the Cathedral shook that evening! When the chorus got to the “Augersteh’n” section, “Rise Again,” the emotional intensity of the music caused tears in the audience and choir alike. If President Woodrow Wilson, buried in a crypt below the Cathedral, had awaken and joined the audience that night, I wouldn’t have been one bit surprised.

While Bernstein’s “Mass” was being recreated for the audience inside the Meyerhoff last week, fear stalked outside in some of the mean streets of this city. During its popular run, the HBO program, “The Wire,” revealed a dark underside of Baltimore: showing the rampant drug dealings, the murders, the violence prone gangs, the corruption of the body politic and the assorted mayhem that goes with that egregious kind of urban rot. As I write, the homicide count in Baltimore stands at 173, which is down from last year’s number at this time–241. Both the Mayor, the Hon. Sheila Dixon, and the Police Commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld, III, deserve pats on the back for their hard work in addressing this extremely serious issue. The problem, however, won’t go away anytime soon. Hardly, a night goes by when a homicide isn’t reported on the late evening TV news.

On the national stage, the country is reeling from the nearly eight year train wreck, orchestrated by the Bush-Cheney Gang. Then, there are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, finished off by the economic tsunami–the mega billion dollar “Wall Street Bailout.”
Few, however, will forget the priest/pedophile scandal which shook the Roman Catholic Church to its core. The Boston Globe labeled it the “worst scandal in the Church in 500 years.”

All of the above made Bernstein’s “Mass,” and its themes of loss of faith, the doubting of authority, the sense of betrayal, the deep confusion and despair, the need to rail against wrongdoing, while, nevertheless, looking for some way out of the dilemma, all the more relevant. Who else could have put together in a concert/theatre setting those elements, and then mixed in sacred music, Broadway tunes, blues, street sounds, jazz, rock and roll, folk ballads, a touch of rebellion and the dead language of Latin, but that quintessentially New Yorker–Leonard Bernstein?

In Bernstein’s “Mass,” the Priest/Celebrant collapses, falling victim to his own doubts about his personal faith. The “Street Chorus” is embittered and outraged by his failure to lead, but renewed on hearing the voice in a song to God of a young altar boy. Slowly, after a period of meditation, the people all begin to join in with the acolyte, finding renewed spiritual strength in themselves, and in community with each other. They then embrace each other and pass on the message of Peace, (Pax). Their collective action revives the Priest/Celebrant. In Bernstein’s words, according to the program notes: “The chain of embrace grows and threads through the entire stage, ultimately with the audience and hopefully into the world outside.”

The celebration of the Mass is the prime ritual of the Roman Catholic Church. It is said daily throughout the world and depicts Christ’s “Last Supper,” his death on the cross, along with his resurrection. It also provides for the spiritual renewal of those who participate in the ancient ritual, which includes the sacrament of the Eucharist. After JFK was murdered, his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, was involved in the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Bernstein first produced his “Mass” for that opening.

Around that time, the Vietnam War was raging. Richard Nixon was in the White House and antiwar protesters were out on the street demonstrating. The Kent State tragedy, too, was fresh in people’s minds. The program notes remind us also that the “Hippie generation was in ascendancy, with drugs, free love and rock music…and college campuses were on strike” nationwide.

Bernstein’s daughter, Nina Bernstein, suggested, in the program notes, that her father was “always intrigued and awed by the Roman Catholic Mass, finding it moving, mysterious and eminently theatrical.” After “Mass” was debuted, in 1971, it was praised widely, but damned by the critic for the NY Times, Harold C. Schonberg. He labeled the performance: “Cheap and vulgar–a show biz ‘Mass,’ the working of a musician who desperately wants to be with it.” Some blasted it as a “sacrilege.”

I’m convinced that Leonard Bernstein lives on–in his music. And, that we, who are blessed to see one of his works, such as the “Mass,” are enriched by its contribution both to our spirit and to the troubled and challenging times that we live in.