2018-07-21 00:16:50 UTC
Bernstein takes sketches of the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony 5
(Old No. 6) and speculates how they might have been used.
NYT: Anthony Tommasini: Is 'Mass' Leonard Bernstein's Best Work, or His
The controversy over Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" began with its
premiere in 1971. In his review for The New York Times on Sept. 9
that year, Harold C. Schonberg dismissed the piece as "fashionable
kitsch," "cheap and vulgar." The same morning, Paul Hume in The
Washington Post hailed the work as a "rich amalgamation of the
theatrical arts" and "the greatest music Bernstein has ever
I loved it when it was new. Nearly 50 years later, I still do,
though I understand why it provokes exasperation.
An opportunity to hear Bernstein's "theater piece for singers,
players and dancers," as he called it, comes next Tuesday and
Wednesday when, in honor of this composer's centennial, Louis
Langrée conducts the forces of the Mostly Mozart Festival in a
production directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer at David Geffen Hall.
As in many Bernstein works, the subject is a crisis of faith. The
text alternates passages of the Latin mass liturgy with English
lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, whose musical "Godspell" had opened in
1970. The piece was composed when America was bitterly polarized by
the Vietnam War and protests raged on college campuses. (Sound
At the time, Bernstein was pilloried for daring to draw from myriad
serious and popular styles in fashioning this two-hour score--a
"wild mélange of everything," as Schonberg put it. Today, when it's
the norm for composers to blend traditions, his approach seems ahead
of its time.
"Mass" begins with an intentionally grating Antiphon: "Kyrie
eleison," with solo voices singing the Latin words entwined with
percussion instruments; the complexity increases over two fidgety
minutes, with prerecorded elements played through speakers placed
around the hall.
Just when the jumble becomes aggressive, a grounded tonal chord on
electric guitar breaks through and brings calm. "Sing God a simple
song," our guide, the Celebrant, says. The sudden shift may seem
heavy-handed and the message a little obvious, but the music is
beguiling, not so much simple as transparent and generous.
Then the Celebrant sings, softly, "For God is the simplest of all."
At that moment the strings in the orchestra enter, tentatively
supporting his tender melodic line with cushioning harmonies. In my
favorite recording, Marin Alsop--with the Baltimore Symphony
Orchestra and Jubilant Sykes as the Celebrant--does this
When the Celebrant sings "Blessed is the man who praises Him," a
pop-style accompaniment pattern begins. Some find it cloying. I
think it's stylish, especially as subtly folded into the overall
textures by Ms. Alsop, who never overemphasizes the pop and rock
elements. (A Bernstein protégé, Ms. Alsop considers "Mass" a
Density to graciousness
Bernstein juxtaposes a Street Chorus of disaffected people (the
jeans and T-shirt crowd) with a formal chorus in robes and a boys'
choir. The Street Chorus first appears in a Prefatory Prayers
section, singing Latin words to music driven by marching band
flourishes. For all the thumping energy, the music has a touch of
stiff irony reminiscent of Shostakovich. There's a striking passage
where a tangle of counterpoint breaks into a rhythmically fractured
stretch that recalls, for me, the frenzied auto-da-fé choral
ensemble of "Candide," complete with "wrong-note" injections of band
A rhythmically fractured stretch
A striking passage in this extended number comes when the boys'
choir enters singing "Kyrie eleison," sounding angelic but a little
out of it. Then a boy soloist sings "Here I go up to the altar of
God" on a phrase that spirals higher. But his voice is backed by
questioning, almost needling, high sustained instrumental sonorities
that suggest this innocent is, at best, naïve.
The boys' choir enters
Another remarkable number is the chorale "Almighty Father."
Bernstein's music balances wistful contemplation with skilled
handling of voice leading and harmony. It lasts less than two
minutes, and it's remarkable music. I love the moment when Bernstein
sets the words "And fill with grace" to widely spaced chords: a
frequent trope in Copland, but taken to a daring extreme here.
The words 'And fill with grace'
The presence of Copland, whom Bernstein revered, is felt in another
of my favorite sections, the Trope: "Thank You," for soprano and
Street Chorus. "There once were days so bright," the soloist sings
to wistful music that could be outtakes from Copland's opera "The
Tender Land," but with a more astringent harmonic language. Listen
to the way Ms. Alsop highlights the piercing woodwinds behind the
pleading melody when the soprano sings "The bend of a willow."
Piercing woodwinds behind pleading melody
The episodes when the ragtag, war-protesting Rock Singers enter have
long been the most cringe-inducing for many listeners. For me,
Bernstein's evocations of rock are only glancing, tinged with jazz
and blues. And he rattles the driving rhythms by introducing slight
metrical dislocations--for example, during "I Don't Know," sung by
the First Rock Singer, which, starting around a minute in, makes him
sound like a member of the Jets who has wandered in from "West Side
'I Don't Know'
As Mass progresses, the Celebrant tries to bless the sacraments, but
the anarchic Street Chorus, fed up with the "heavenly silence" from
a God who has clearly abandoned them, pummels the Celebrant with
battering, rock-driven, deafening repetitions of "Dona nobis,"
provoking the work's dramatic climax: The shattered Celebrant throws
the chalice to the ground, which stuns the crowd. The Celebrant has
a breakdown. "Isn't that odd," he sings, almost to himself, as
pizzicato basses play fragments of 12-tone riffs.
The Celebrant's breakdown
It's Bernstein's contribution to the legacy of operatic mad scenes,
and it's riveting, a 14-minute tour de force for the Celebrant. The
most powerful stretch, for me, comes when the Celebrant, unable to
rouse the shocked crowd, sings "How easily things get quiet," then
observes "God is very ill." His phrases try to coalesce into an
aching lullaby ("Don't you cry") over an undulant riff, but to no
avail. Song is impossible, the music suggests.
Song is impossible, the music suggests
The Celebrant's fury and anguish erupt again in fractured phrases--
until, finally, a boy soprano, singing atop diaphanous string
sonorities, offers advice: "Sing God a secret song." This begins the
final extended episode, when voices, one by one, join together in
harmony, in canon. Finally the entire company reprises the "Almighty
Comforting, but uncertain and quizzical
But this time the supportive harmonies are thick with intensifying
intervals and pungent bits. The mood is comforting, but uncertain,
more quizzical. The crisis of faith has been overcome. For now.