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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Leonard Bernstein's most personal work, 'MASS,' recognized by the Grammy Hall of Fame

​Leonard Bernstein’s 1971 album of his musical theater work MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers, along with other historic discs from the likes of Miles Davis (‘Round About Midnight), Fats Domino (“I’m Walkin’”) and Dolly Parton (“Coat of Many Colors”), is among 25 recordings inducted this year into The Recording Academy’s Grammy Hall of Fame.

Composed by Bernstein—who also wrote the text (Stephen Schwartz supplied additional text and lyrics)—MASS was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in honor of the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Previously, Bernstein had dedicated his 1963 Symphony No. 3: Kaddish, which took Hebrew text from the Jewish prayer for the dead, to John F. Kennedy’s memory.

“My siblings and I are thrilled that our father’s piece MASS is getting its due from the Grammy Hall of Fame,” says Bernstein’s daughter Jamie Bernstein. “Of all his compositions, MASS is the most personal--the one into which he put the most of himself. So in honoring the piece, The Recording Academy honors Leonard Bernstein himself--in all his multifacetedness, all his melodiousness, and all of his enormous heart.”

An author, broadcaster, filmmaker and concert narrator, Jamie Bernstein travels extensively in speaking about music--and her father.

“I like to say that ‘it takes a village to put on MASS,’” she says in talks she gives regarding the piece, then identifies “two main engines” that drove her father’s creative life: personality conflicts and perpetual confrontations with authority figures.

MASS, she maintains, is Leonard Bernstein’s most deeply personal work, and more than any other “demonstrates a grander synthesis of all these creative cross-currents.”

According to his daughter, Bernstein was both “the most extroverted guy you could ever meet” at dinners and parties, and “an introverted, lonely dreamer who stayed up all night working.” Adding to the contradictory portrait, she notes that the classically-trained musician loved the popular music of his youth and wrote for both concert hall and Broadway stage, and eventually rejected the advice of his conducting mentor Serge Koussevitzky that he drop his Broadway pursuits altogether.

“My father loved to break down the walls between genres, and mix them all together,” Jamie explains, noting that he created “a perfect bridge between the concert stage and the Broadway pit” with orchestral music that is “joyous, full of tunes, and bursting with catchy rhythms,” and Broadway scores that are “as elegantly constructed as a Beethoven symphony.” MASS combines these elements while manifesting Bernstein’s relationship with authority as represented by both his own father and God.

Raised by Russian immigrant parents in a traditional Eastern European Jewish environment, Bernstein upset his father by choosing music instead of taking over his successful hair/beauty supply business in Boston. And his use of Hebrew biblical texts in his compositions, Jamie observes “document a lifelong, heated dialog with God”—MASS being “a particularly impassioned chapter of the argument.”

Jamie also points out how her father expressed conflict by pitting tonality against the atonality of mid-20th century composition, and notes that he embraced his children’s 1960s rock music—Beatles, Supremes, Kinks and Rolling Stones—as “the ultimate, uninhibited expression of tonality at the time.” Hence, in MASS he used rock (embodied by a youthful “street chorus”) in opposition to atonal music (formal church chorus) as “metaphor for confronting authority,” with resolution achieved by the “Almighty Father” choral finale, “one of the most beautiful melodies he ever wrote.”

Noting that Bernstein was a lifelong liberal social and political activist, Jamie says that MASS further depicts the “multi-pronged breakdown of the spirit hungering for religious faith…a populace searching for a trustworthy government…a leader clinging to the shreds of his own power…an artist searching for inner meaning and outer acceptance.” And all this, she says, came out of the assassination of President Kennedy, whom her parents knew and adored, and were left emotionally shattered.

Six years later when Onassis asked Bernstein to be chairman of the Kennedy Center, he declined in favor of writing a piece for its opening, “and that is how MASS came to be born,” Jamie says. But when it was completed in 1971, she adds, America was far different from 1963, what with Vietnam, the generation gap, and President Richard Nixon.

“This breakdown in the culture, this fall from the grace that my father felt was so much a part of the Kennedy era, is very much what MASS is about--and is very much why President Nixon declined to attend the inauguration of the Kennedy Center,” Jamie says. “He was even advised by the FBI to stay away from the event because there was a ‘secret message,’ disguised in Latin, hidden in the piece for the express purpose of embarrassing the President. The secret message? ‘Dona nobis pacem’-- give us peace--just a line in the standard liturgical text of the mass.”

Then again, Leonard Bernstein had been named in Nixon’s infamous White House Enemies List.

Audiences either loved or hated MASS, with some cities canceling productions because of pressure from an appalled Catholic Church, and some music critics objecting to the mix of symphony orchestra and rock band. But in 2000, Pope John Paul II himself requested a performance of MASS in the Vatican, and today, of course, during the continued celebration of “Leonard Bernstein at 100,“ orchestral rock is commonplace.

Jamie surmises that as “a world-renowned musical star,” composing MASS was Bernstein’s way “of recapturing something real within himself.” He had put so much of himself into it and was therefore hurt by an ambivalent critical reaction, “and yet, the live audiences tended to be tremendously moved.”

In the years since, she adds, the issues it addressed—“the depiction of a deepening social schism, the rising up of youthful voices in protest, the government’s unabated involvement in military operations overseas, the despair of a citizenry seeing the accomplishments of a past president systematically demolished by the policies of a subsequent one”—make MASS as timely and urgent today.

“Leonard Bernstein worked all his life to make the world a better place,” Jamie concludes. “He never gave up on the goals of brotherhood and world peace that he held so close to his heart.”

And while he wrestled with faith, hope and despair in his compositions, “what moves me the most is that he cannot and will not give up on the possibility of a better world. That’s why MASS ends--had to end--with a kind of rebirth, despite the shattered sacraments littering the stage. With that final, hushed chorale sung by the entire cast, my father is dreaming that better world for us, through his notes.”

Jamie Bernstein’s Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein was published last year. She has also directed the award-winning documentary Crescendo: The Power of Music.

The Grammy Hall Of Fame was established by the Recording Academy's National Trustees in 1973 to honor recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance that are at least 25 years old. Inductees are selected annually by a special member committee of eminent and knowledgeable professionals from all branches of the recording arts.



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