Leonard Bernstein’s ‘MASS’ Appeal


Bernstein's MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers stands out as one of the composer’s more remarkable achievements.

Leonard Bernstein’s career was replete with momentous achievements, but his MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers stands out as one of the composer’s more remarkable ones.

Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Cen­ter for the Performing Arts in the fall of 1971, this composition is huge, both in its company of over 200 singers, dancers and players, and in the highly charged emotions it has engendered among concertgoers, scholars and music critics wherever it has been performed since its premiere 44 years ago.

Local audiences will have their first opportunity to experience the work, which revolves around its protagonist, the Celebrant — a stand-in for Bernstein — as he leads a mass through harmony, chaos and resolution, when it has its premiere on April 30 at the Kimmel Center.

Bernstein was the greatest eclectic American composer of the mid-20th century, a time when eclecticism was not an admirable quality in serious musicians. He was a superb conductor, virtuoso pianist, composer of serious symphonic and choral masterpieces, chamber music and musical dramas for the Broadway stage, including West Side Story and Candide.

Initially, Bernstein attempted to set the major Latin sections of the Roman Catholic Mass liturgy to music, but the work soon grew much larger. The composer’s musical settings of the Latin liturgy became interwoven with English songs and choruses expressing his difficulty in sustaining faith in God during times of war, inhumanity, insincere ritual and cruelty.

These lyrics, mostly written by a young Stephen Schwartz — in his pre-Pippin and Wicked days — plus one quatrain by Paul Simon, are pious and profane, searing and downright nasty, sincere, political, flippant and sarcastic. They are set in a variety of styles, including rock, gospel, pop, children’s music, Broadway music and marching band licks. These sections are performed by multiple instrumental groupings, including pit orchestra, rock bands, marching band and adult and youth choirs.

While Bernstein’s MASS is recognized as a masterpiece today, it received a decidedly mixed welcome at its premiere. The opening night audience, after sitting in stunned silence for some minutes, gave the performance a 30-minute standing ovation; a recording of the event also sold extremely well. Critics, however, panned the work. John Simon of New York Magazine called it “Bernstein’s Mess,” and Howard Schonberg, in The New York Times, called the composition “pretentious and thin, cheap and vulgar.”

At first blush, it may seem somewhat anomalous for the intensely Jewish Bernstein, who put his Judaism front and center in works like Chichester Psalms, Jeremiah Symphony, Kaddish Symphony and Hashkiveinu, to have worked on something so emblematic of the Catholic faith. But within MASS, there are at least five examples of Jewish thought and symbols evident.

For example, in the opening number sung by the Celebrant, A Simple Song, the composer reflects the prophetic ideal taught by the prophet Micah that God demands of us “only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6:8). In A Simple Song, the Celebrant begins by singing “God loves all simple things, for God is the simplest of all.” As MASS progresses, his religious practice and his vestments become increasingly complex against his will, and he watches in anger as the people grow ever more profane.

The great Jewish biblical personalities had “I-Thou” relationships with God, according to the theologian Martin Buber, and so does the Celebrant. His searingly personal questions to God reflect the queries of Abraham, Isaac and Moses with the Creator.

There are several biblical quotes in MASS, two of them sung in Hebrew. A Simple Song contains verses from Psalm 121, while Gospel-Sermon utilizes the Genesis phrase “and God saw that it was good…” in a derisive and sarcastic manner. “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh,” from Isaiah 27, and “Baruch Haba” from Psalm 118, major statements in Jewish liturgy, are sung in perfect Hebrew.

One of the more striking sections of MASS is when “Kyrie Eleison” is paired with kazoos. This Greek phrase from the traditional Mass liturgy is first sung by the children’s choir, and then played by the young singers on kazoos. The author I.L. Peretz wrote a short story, “The Whistle,” describing how a Chasidic rabbi allowed a child to play the High Holiday prayers on his flute, because the heart of the child was utterly pure. This tale is reflected by the efforts of the youthful kazoo players.

The last example of Bernstein’s Jewish influence on MASS is also the most startling. At the end of the production, the Celebrant is so angry at the profane behavior of the people as they sing and dance Dona Nobis Pacem to a rock melody, he smashes the Communion Chalice — exactly as Moses destroyed the two tablets of the Ten Commandments on his return from Mount Sinai following the collective sin of the Golden Calf.

These borrowings from Jewish sources were purposeful decisions by the composer to teach us that MASS was rooted both in his Jewish identity and his continuing spiritual quest.


MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers
April 30-May 3 at Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center
Broad and Spruce streets, Philadelphia
kimmelcenter.org; 215-893-1999

Hazzan David F. Tilman is associate professor at the Miller Cantorial School of JTS, conductor of SHIR KI Choir of Keneseth Israel, and hazzan emeritus of Beth Sholom Congregation.


  1. I performed in Mass almost 20 years ago, alongside the woman who would become my wife. We, to this day, agree that it was the most difficult, yet profound, music we have ever performed. A non-practicing Midwestern Protestant, I know very little Hebrew. Yet, for me, the very pinnacle — the most moving moment of Bernstein’s masterpiece (about the Catholic Mass, no less,) is the Kadosh. It has been 20 years, and I can only remember it phonetically … something like: “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh Adonai… Tsva Ot, Mlol Khol, Ha Aretz Kwo Do… Baruch, Haba, Beshem Adonai, Beshem Adonai…” I knew the Kadosh was found in Isaiah, but did not know that Baruch Haba was in Psalms. Bernstein moved us, and changed us, all those years ago. We began to question dogma, but became a little more open to honest faith. The piece will always stay with us.


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