Leonard Bernstein’s Mass


Leonard Bernstein was most famous as conductor and for proselytizing Classical Music, he is especially thought of in this manner by those old enough to remember his Young Peoples Concerts series.

“Teaching people – his favorite occupation, really. Descended from rabbis, he was a rabbi at heart, a master teacher. Just listening to Lenny was an education. … There was nothing he’d rather do than stimulate new thoughts for, especially, young minds.” (Burton Bernstein).  

He was also a political figure.  Tom Wolfe coined the phrase “radical chic” to describe Bernstein’s involvement with counter-cultural movements, although that phrase trivializes his commitment to activism, especially to those groups and movements associated with peace.  Leonard Bernstein was larger than life a man who polarized his generation, one of those individuals most people either loved or hated.

However, I think ultimately his legacy will be as a composer.

Among the composers of the 20th century Bernstein’s output might appear to be modest. He was a busy conductor, after all,  but still managed to leave behind an impressive body of work.  Eclecticism was his own personal brand.  He wrote three symphonies, none following the traditional symphonic form, as well as chamber music, music for piano, instrumental sonatas and dozens of art songs.  Still, he is probably most famous for the Broadway masterpiece West Side Story from which he crafted a suite of symphonic dances.  He wrote film scores, his most famous for On The Waterfront.  

But even for a composer known for stylistic inclusiveness Mass is eclecticism brought to the extreme.

Written in 1971 with a with text from the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Mass but including additional texts written by Stephen Schwartz and himself, it is a work both celebrating and questioning religious faith.  Mass is subtitled, “A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers” which should give you an idea that this is not a mass setting like any you may have heard before.

Jacqueline Kennedy invited Bernstein to write a work to be performed at the inauguration of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.  Because of the venue, and timing, Bernstein chose to write a cathartic work which allowed the audience as well as himself to remember John F. Kennedy but also to give expression to the general political unrest of the times and to wrap all this into a spiritual context.

By the late 1960s, the country had become polarized over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. A powerful anti-war movement swept the nation, fueled by outrage at the draft, the massive casualties, atrocities such as the Mai Lai Massacre, incursions into Laos and Cambodia, the imprisonment of conscientious objectors and activists, and in 1970, the Kent State shootings. These turbulent times produced a restless youth culture that hungered for a trustworthy government and for spiritual authority that reflected their values. Mass gave them a voice. (Bernstein website)

Mass is a sprawling work in 17 parts.  It calls for a large pit orchestra, two choruses plus a boy’s choir, a Broadway-sized cast (with ballet company), marching band and a rock band.  In the original review that appeared in The New York Times, Harold C. Schoenberg described it, “The piece is pure Bernstein… Audacious, brilliant, excessive, self-indulgent, sentimental, touching, a cornucopia of genius poured out with no restraint.”

While Bernstein accurately followed the text of the Catholic mass liturgy, he interpolated many other sections: Devotions before and after sections, Interludes, Confessions, Meditations, and others.  These non-liturgical sections might be free-form contemporary classical or jazz infused or pop-rock. The music Bernstein wrote sometimes recalls West Side Story, and will incorporate styles as divergent as folk music to twelve-tone composition.  Like Bernstein the man, you either will love it or hate it.

An original recording conducted by Bernstein came out shortly after the premier in 1971 and was later included as a volume in the Bernstein Century collection.


Other recordings include one from 2005 by Kent Nagano featuring Jerry Hadley:


Released in 2009 was a recording conducted by Kristjan Järvi and featuring Randall Scarlata in the lead role:


There is a complete video of this cast on YouTube from the 2012 BBC Proms:

There is a DVD of a performance of Mass at the Vatican City:


But the recording I think is the best, also released in 2009, is the one on Naxos conducted by Marin Alsop and starring Jubilant Sykes:


Here is a review written by Bruce Hodges of a Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony performance in 2008.

The Bernstein website has images of the score and composition notes which offer testimony to Bernstein’s commitment to the political messages of the work.

Mass is a huge multifaceted work, and may not be everyone’s cup of tea.  But, it sure is mine.

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