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More than a Mass...
on May 31, 2004
The most important thing to remember before listening to this piece by Leonard Bernstein is that it is not a "Mass" in the traditional sense. Sure, it has a Kyrie, a Gloria, a Credo, a Sanctus, and an Agnus Dei, but there's much much more going on.
"Mass" is described a "A Theater Piece for Singers" and thinking of the work in this light elucidates much of the structure of this recording. For example, the "Things Get Broken" segment on Disc 2 (one of the more controversial parts of "Mass") seems overly drawn out when listening to it on CD. The reason this seems so is because there is a lot theatrically going on. The focus of this segment is more on theater than music, and so it's less exciting musically (it's still a great segment, though).
Judging from what's been written about this work, this recording of "Mass" is the only complete recording available right now. It includes the original cast and is conducted by Berstein himself. Someone had foresight.
It's easier to listen to this work as a theater piece. Sections of a traditional mass are interspersed with solos (by singers with titles such as "Rock Singer", "Blues Singer", "An Older Man", "A Young Girl") that usually function as commentary or embellishment to the traditional religious setting. The best example of this is during the "Confession". Following the singing of a more or less traditional Catholic confessional (complete in Latin and English), the Rock and Blues Singers provide their own unique perspectives. The First Rock Singer complains that he's not sure how to confess, because he's so messed up he doesn't know what he wants or feels at any time:
What I say I don't feel
What I feel I don't show
What I show isn't real
What is real, Lord - I don't know
The First Blues Singer than chimes in to say just how easy it is to get blessed if one just goes through the motions or says what people want to hear. A second blues singer sings an almost outright paean to lust:
It's easy to keep the flair in your affair
Your body's always ready, but your soul's not there
Don't be nonplussed
Come love, come lust,
It's so easy when you just don't care
Doubtless passages such as this in the context of a religious mass served to heighten the controversy around the work as a whole.
Berstein's incredible music pervades "Mass" - the stunningly beautiful "A Simple Song"; the incredible "Meditation No.1", "Gloria Tibi", the boy's choir-led "Sanctus". A mishmash of musical styles somehow blends together to form a coherent whole. There's traditional classical music (orchestra and choir), rock music, scat, jazz, blues, spoken word, quadrophonic tape, music for the stage, and others that weave in and out of the musical mesh. One gets the impression that Berstein was an incomprehensibly astute composer. This work alone proves that.
This piece was commissioned for the Kennedy Center opening (supposedly by Jacqueline Kennedy herself in honor of JFK - I have yet to read anywhere what she thought of it). That fact along with the highly religious context made this a very controversial work. The juxtapositions of the sacred and the profane were not appreciated by various religious communities at the time. "Mass" was called "Vulgar" and "sacreligious". Seeing that an altar is desecrated during the end of the piece, by the same character that sang "A Simple Song", there was probably much fodder for criticism. In truth, the piece is about crisis in faith, and it is a religious, though a very probing, work. Much of the commentary probably rings true for many: the hypocrisy of certain popular manifestations of religion and the double standards people sometimes apply to their religious and daily lives. In the end, "Mass" is more critical of people who claim religiosity than it is of religion in general. It is a beautiful, challenging, and inspiring piece of music. It does not deserve to be buried under trite controversy. Give it a listen, read the text, and, if nothing else, drown in the music.