Buried within the notes that he kept while writing Mass, Leonard Bernstein, with characteristic exuberance, summed up the spiritual theme of this liturgical theater piece:
"Some religion necessary to every man . . . belief in something greater than random / systematic biological existence. Religion(s) of peace, militancy, social progress, self-discovery, love-dependency, other-identification. Altruism is a kind of religion. So is anarchy. God=idea=elan vital. COMMITMENT."
To Bernstein, the journey toward personal religious belief was anything but easy-going. Although it could lead to solace and unity, the spiritual path was also rife with detours that could misdirect a person toward doubt and intolerance. It was through Mass: with its clash of contrasting genres, instrumental forces, and ironic, often angry lyrics: that Bernstein sought to capture the conflicts, contradictions, and rewards that humankind faced in its search for faith.
Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Mass christened the newly minted Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, at the height of the Vietnam War on September 8, 1971. Bernstein provided a gamut-running evening that ranged from chant to rock music, avant-garde electronic sounds to Broadway showstoppers: all mixed with elements of pre-taped quadraphonic music.
In performance, the traditional celebrant of the Mass stands alongside a full orchestra, two separate choirs (who occasionally play kazoos), a rock band and rock singers, a marching band, and a Broadway _sized cast. The words from the traditional liturgy confront lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (who wrote Godspell) and Paul Simon.
"For me, Leonard Bernstein was the greatest risk-taker in 20th century classical music," says Marin Alsop, who will lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Morgan State University Choir, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and an array of soloists in performances of Mass at Carnegie Hall and at The United Palace Theater as part of Carnegie Hall's Bernstein Mass Project. "He thrived on conflict, and this is nowhere more evident than in Mass."
Using Bernstein's overwhelming work as a springboard, The Bernstein Mass Project: A Choral Exploration, a program of The Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall that began this spring, has united New York City middle school and high school students with composers Tom Cabaniss, James Blachly, and Jim Papoulis. The students have written original lyrics based on personal experiences related to the spiritual topics of Mass. Under the guidance of the professional composers, they have set these texts to their own melodies and accompaniment. The results of this project will be performed in Zankel Hall on October 19.
"I think what Bernstein was interested in was a collision of all of the things that he loved: the world of the orchestra, but also Broadway, and rock 'n' roll," said Cabaniss. "He was very interested in folk and pop and in all of these new, experimental forms. Mass was a piece that embraced the world that he was living in."
The quest for faith in the face of doubt and instability is as relevant today as it was in 1971 when the piece was first performed. "It's about the hope for something better, but also anxiety about the way things are," said Sarah Johnson, Director of The Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall. "These themes resonate with students. They have said 'we never get to talk about this stuff, and it really matters to us.'"
The Bernstein Mass Project: A Choral Exploration is Sunday, October 19 at 3 PM in Zankel Hall. Check out students' works in progress at
The Bernstein Mass Project with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Marin Alsop is Saturday, October 25 at 3 PM in The United Palace Theater, 4140 Broadway at 175th Street. Alsop will also lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mass at Carnegie Hall Friday, October 24 at 8 PM.