Revisiting Bernstein's Immodest 'Mass' Leonard Bernstein wrote his Mass to memorialize John F. Kennedy. But conductor Marin Alsop says that the dizzyingly eclectic work reveals more about its composer than anyone else.
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Revisiting Bernstein's Immodest 'Mass'

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Revisiting Bernstein's Immodest 'Mass'

Revisiting Bernstein's Immodest 'Mass'

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When Leonard Bernstein was commissioned to compose something for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., the white-tied audience may not have expected something quite like this.


SIMON: Leonard Bernstein, of course - America's most famous conductor and composer - chose to memorialize John Kennedy with a Mass. History tells us that after the final note had been played at the premiere of "Mass" in September 1971, the audience sat in silence for three minutes, and stood and applauded for nearly 30. But critics sat on their hands. Marin Alsop will conduct "Mass" next month with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as part of a celebration of Leonard Bernstein's life and legacy. Maestro Alsop studied with Bernstein, considers him her mentor, and she joins us here. Thanks so much for being back with us.

MARIN ALSOP: It's great to be here, Scott.

SIMON: Was that a hurdy gurdy that I heard in that clip?

ALSOP: Yes, fantastic, isn't it? Well, he calls for actually four different keyboards that play a variety of wild and wacky sounds.

SIMON: Now, you literally grew up under his wing. So would you know why he chose the Mass form for this composition?

ALSOP: I think the reason he picked the Mass, when you think of JFK, he was the only Roman Catholic president. So Bernstein picks the idea of Mass - I mean, it's not really a religious piece at all. But he uses the Mass as the structure to hang all of his beliefs and questions about our society and our world.

SIMON: Perhaps the best-known part of "Mass" is "A Simple Song," here sung by Alan Titus.


ALAN TITUS: (Singing) Sing God a simple song, lauda, laude. Make it up as you go along, lauda, laude.

ALSOP: Basically, what happens is the celebrant, whose voice we hear singing this opening "Simple Song," he's mired in his belief system. You know, he's grown up this way. He's never questioned his belief in God.


TITUS: (Singing) Blessed is the man who loves the Lord. Blessed is the man who praises him, lauda, lauda, laude. And walks in his ways.

ALSOP: And gradually, he's questioned by all of these people. They're called the street chorus. It's a little bit like The Village People in a way. You know, there are - you have the war protester, you've got the hippie. You've got all these people from different walks of life, and they keep saying, you know, why should we believe in God? And gradually this eats away at his surety of things.


TITUS: (Singing) How fine it would be to rest my head, And lay me down, down in the wine...

ALSOP: And in the communion - which of course is the moment when the priest, the celebrant, is really communing with God - this is where the celebrant in Bernstein's "Mass" has a mad scene, a complete cathartic breakdown. So it offers and affords, I think, a structure that is really conducive not just this idea of high Mass, but also almost to like a Broadway show.

SIMON: But I have a friend who's a Franciscan priest who celebrates Mass, I believe, five times a day. And he begins before he walks out by saying, it's show time.

ALSOP: You know, for all organized religion, there's this element of theater. People are married to the idea of theater and ritual and tradition. And so I think Mass in a way is the ultimate theatrical production for Catholicism.


TITUS: (Singing) Gloria Tibi, Gloria Tibi, Gloria.

Unidentified Boys' Choir: (Singing) Gloria Tibi, Gloria Tibi, Gloria...

SIMON: I'm told he wrote he wrote this very quickly and finished it just in the nick of time.

ALSOP: I think it was very much like a Broadway show, coming together at the last minute, people writing things, you know, on the fly, adding things, taking things away. I know that when I first wanted to perform "Mass," which was late '80s, early '90s, is when I really got interested in the piece. It was challenging because the parts were a complete disaster. There were the original parts from the 1971 premiere, and they had been pasted in and cut and copied in, and you could barely read them.

SIMON: Why isn't "Mass" performed more than this?

ALSOP: What I'm thrilled about is it's really seeing a revival. And the first obstacle to performing "Mass" really is the enormous forces involved. You have an orchestra that's a little bit out of the box. I mean, I have to find at least two electric guitar players that can play in five-four time a fugue, you know, read music, etcetera. So you have this rock band, you have a blues band embedded in the orchestra. You have all these keyboards and things. And then you have the street singers, which are hard to cast. And you have a boys' choir. You have to find the celebrant, marching band. Oh, I'm not done, you know. And when we do the piece in Carnegie Hall, the next day we're going to go up to 175th on Broadway to the Palace Theater and perform with 500 school kids joining in the production.

SIMON: Did Paul Simon contribute four lines to "Mass"?

ALSOP: Yes, Paul Simon. I don't know, maybe they met in the elevator at The Dakota, who knows. And he said, hey, do you have some lyrics?

SIMON: Something in that satchel there.


Unidentified Street Singers: (Singing) Half of the people are stoned, and the other half are waiting for the next election. Half the people are drowned, and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction...

ALSOP: It begins - half of the people are stoned, and the other half are waiting for the next election. Half the people are drowned, and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.

SIMON: Those weren't throwaway lines.

ALSOP: No. I mean, they're fantastic. And the street singers, they act as individuals questioning the celebrant and singing solos: rock solos, blues solos, etcetera. But they also come together as a protest group really. And they're quite militant.


Street Singers: (Singing) Half of the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election.

ALSOP: Eventually, they gather together singing dona nobis, and it's a six-eight.

ALSOP: (Singing) Dona nobis.

ALSOP: And of course it means, give us peace. As they're singing that, each of them stands up, you know, sort of with fist in the air. You know, give us peace now or we'll take it by force. You know, it's extremely strong statement, of course, at the time, about the Vietnam War.

SIMON: And the question of whether or not it's aged well is, I gather, less important than is it now seeing its time return?

ALSOP: I think in many ways it was way ahead of its time. In 1971, people didn't know quite what to make of it. But we're much more comfortable with crossing over all these boundaries in terms of genre. But the messages are so poignant. The idea that we need to stand up for what we believe in, that we have to be counted, that we have to question what's going on. But also, I think the hope in human kind is something that we need maybe even more so today.

SIMON: Let's end with the "Secret Song."


Unidentified Choirboy: Sing God a secret song, lauda, laude. Lauda, lauda.

ALSOP: You hear the sweet sound of this boy soprano echoing the "Simple Song." Now it's called the "Secret Song." And he embodies really the hope for the future. This piece is a real insight into who Bernstein was as a human being. He was someone that embraced every type of music, every type of personality, every opinion, and Stephen Sondheim rewrote lyrics to express how he felt, "Poor Lenny, ten gifts too many."

SIMON: Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. They will perform Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" on October 24 at Carnegie Hall and October 26 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of a celebration of what would have been Leonard Bernstein's 90th birthday. For more on the music, you can come to the music section of our Web site,

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