Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Weight of Bernstein's Mass

Jubilant Sykes in Mass, conducted by Marin Alsop
President Kennedy's widow asked Leonard Bernstein to write a mass for the opening of JFK's memorial arts center in 1971.  What Bernstein wrote is probably far from what she had in mind. I've sometimes called it Bernstein's Mess,  But, God help me, I love it intensely.

I'm not alone in feeling this way.   A quick search netted this gem of observation from someone who wore out her LP of Mass with repeated listening, as I did:

For myself, I love [Bernstein's Mass] but also find it cheesy and corny at times, not just dated; feel it relies on a reaching and sentimental twist to find its ending amidst a lot of devolving hyperbole. I also find it incredibly beautiful, especially in its details--more beautiful, the more closely you look at it.  (from a blog by Elizabeth Tamny)

Between forty minutes of stuff that's "cheesy and corny" but fun, and a half-hour of "devolving hyperbole" at the end, there's a half-hour of music that has color, variety, ingenuity, beauty, and a weight that has anchored it deep in my own life.   Let's take up Ms. Tamny's suggestion to notice the "details" that make this section of Mass "more beautiful, the more closely you look."

For me, the heart of Mass begins with Bernstein's setting of Psalm 130, De Profundis ("From the Depths"). The basses sing from the depths of their range.  Punctuated by timpani, and built up with overlapping imitations in chorus and orchestra, the music reaches ever-upward, until a breaking point when the chorus dissolves into choral yapping, a foretaste of the musical chaos to come.  This section ends on the words Spero! Sperat!   ("trust" or "hope")

During the next several minutes, Bernstein will open up the fourth wall in a few ways. The Celebrant, central character in this theatre peace, will mention members of the cast by name in prayer.  Bernstein will give us a look into his own process for composing, as his Celebrant will appear to improvise a couple of melodies.   A few minutes later, the Celebrant will sing in Hebrew, for no apparent reason except the words' personal resonance for their Jewish composer.  I'm not complaining; I'm touched.

After the chorus sings "Sperat!" a boy's choir continues the "hope" theme singing "My soul waits for the Lord" in Latin.  We've heard the tune before, at a similar moment of repose early in the Mass, when the choir sang the words, "Almighty Father, incline Thine ear."  The boy sopranos sing it simply, but the adult choir echoes each phrase with near-frantic urgency.

This little interlude builds to an instrumental version of the same tune, orchestrated to sound like dance music in some Middle Eastern bazaar, the strings a little off-pitch, the beat something odd (I'm guessing 7/8).  The libretto describes a "fetishistic dance" adoring the sacraments.  It's thrilling and meant to be more visceral than spiritual.  We heard it early in the Mass, a setting to the words In nomine Patris et filii, ("in the name of the Father and of the son"), and we'll hear its distinctive beat throughout this section, sometimes just on bongos, an ominous thread underlying sweet music.

With "Our Father," Bernstein deliberately reminds of how Mass began, to draw our attention to significant differences.  At his first appearance, our Celebrant, dressed casually, strummed a guitar and told us to "Sing God a simple song.../ Make it up as you go along."  In the numbers that followed, he donned more and more ecclesiastical garb while street people and marching bands and rock singers and whatnot all had their say.  The celebrant thus appeared to be more and more alienated, both from his flock and from that "simple" faith he proclaimed at the start.

Now, heavily robed, he literally re-composes that faith.  He sings "Our father" accompanied by one finger on a piano, as if he actually might be making it up as he goes along. The phrases meander to the upper edge of his baritone range, where he sounds exposed and vulnerable. His "amen" reaches up a fifth, sounding more like a question than a statement; and that interval becomes accompaniment with guitar clearly meant to remind us of "Simple Song," only the text here expresses resignation, regret, and determination to "go on" even when "our illusions fail." 

Now he does indeed go on, ringing the sanctus bell.  What follows is a delight all the more delightful against this dark background.  Two groups of boys toss around the phrases of the Sanctus as in a game.  The orchestral accompaniment climbs from deep down to high above the boys' highest notes. Like fireworks, the orchestra bursts at the pinnacle, notes cascading like sparks.

The orchestra subsides mostly to just the bongos that echo the beat for that "fetishistic dance" (nomine patris), a beat soon taken up by woodwinds and strings.  But first, the Celebrant continues to re-compose his faith from the ground up, plucking a couple of guitar strings and seeming to improvise a melody from the pitches: "Mi alone is only mi /  but mi with sol / means a song is beginning grow... take wing, and rise up singing / From me and my soul."  Without pause, he proclaims, Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh! Hebrew for "Holy."

With that bongo still going strong, the Choir takes up the Celebrant's "Kadosh" and sings in Hebrew, "All the heavens and earth are full of His glory," while a pair of flutes chase each other upward like playful birds ascending.   The volume and density increase, and then the Street Chorus joins in for "Holy Holy Holy" in English. They subside. Then it's back to "Kadosh" for a bigger finish on the Hebrew phrase, "B'shem Adonai!" (In the name of the Lord).

This part of the Mass is sweet, mysterious, and somehow painful to hear.  Certainly the strange mixture of English, Latin, and Hebrew is part of the mystery;  the intertwining of the voices and instrumental parts, tending upwards, expresses yearning.   It is music and text beyond doctrine, beyond ethics and morality, operating on me at a level I don't fully understand:  that's where my faith comes from.  While there is much music in the world that I can say I love, and much that has an emotional effect on me, Mass is in a class by itself.

Back around Bernstein's 70th birthday, I wrote him a fan letter telling him all this.  I also confessed to singing parts of Mass in the car at times when I've been most exultant and most frustrated.  He hand-wrote an appreciation of my appreciation.

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