Critical Mass

I'm a big fan of Marin Alsop. But last night her BBC Prom performance with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra playing her own sequence of the suites from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet was strangely unsatisfying. Tempi were pulled around, and rather than adding to the tension the wayward performance weakened it. When it finished I wanted some 'in your face' music making that was over the top, but which really worked. So as Marin Alsop was a pupil of Bernstein's I put on his 1971 recording of his own Mass, a work I don't listen to very often.

Is Mass Bernstein's unrecognised masterpeice? Or is it a failed experiment in using the vernacular and exploiting street chic? (But wasn't the 'parody mass' a legitimate renaissance musical form which exploited contemporary music such as L'homme arme?) My view used to be that Mass was simply a failed experiment, but I have to confess I am slowly moving towards the view that it may be a misunderstood masterpeice. I would be interested in readers views, and guidance on what to make of it. Just post your views using the comments facility at the foot of this post.

And while you ponder those questions, here's a video of Marie-Adele McArthur singing A simple song from Mass. Whatever you think of the work as a whole this is beautiful music.

Now take An Overgrown Path to Laminar flow region.
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Pliable said…
The synchronicity on this blog is breathtaking. The Critical Mass post was written in my head as I cycled into work this morning (it's summer in the UK, which means it has stopped raining for thirty minutes). The starting point of my thoughts was Marin Alsop, but then I thought there is a wider thread here on women conductors. In the UK we have Sian Edwards, Jane Glover and many other wonderfully talented ladies....

Then came this wonderful post from Carmen, with a link to a most excellent blog on women conductors

Job done, go and read Carmen's blog.
Cary Boyce said…
Bernstein’s Mass is not just a musical work, it’s also a theater piece -- and from both perspectives, a work of great mastery. Bernstein understood not only the physicality of singing, he also understood, I think, the narrative and spiritual questions of his musical undertaking.

I have an evangelical friend who describes the Mass along the lines of “the greatest sarcasm that a genius can bring to music.” I don’t perceive it that way, but I don’t have his theological certainty. Instead, I see the piece as a great musical and spiritual exploration, one with tremendous appeal. This is because it asks the questions that we all have at some level. It connects with the human condition. In my view, this is what the best art and music does. The performance from the Vatican was quite magical.

So while I’m probably not qualified to say what is or is not a masterpiece, I’d place his Mass right up there.

Cary Boyce
Garth Trinkl said…
pliable, put me down in the Bernstein/Schwartz Mass as a flawed masterpiece camp. I listened to the work several times as an freshman undergraduate when the recording first came out (I missed the Washington, D.C. premiere, being on the other coast at the time). Despite my Princeton-trained music theory professor's wishes, I listened repeatedly, my freshman year, to the Bernstein/Schwartz Mass and the Britten War Requiem, another work critically deemed a "flawed masterpiece" by some reviewers in the 1960s. I don't personally think that the Britten is a flawed masterpiece (I believe American music critic Tim Page does think so), while I do think that the Bernstein/Schwartz Mass is flawed in its sentimental treatment of (American) religion and spirituality. (I don't think the work, if written today at the beginning of the 21st century, would be considered a masterpiece of art and spirituality [or of music-theater]. We are now, in American and probably also in Britain, much more versed at publicly (and sometimes respectfully) discussing issues of religion and civic life. -- And if philosopher Roger Scruton can call Birtwistle's and Zinovieff's The Mask of Orpheus a work of adolescent narcissistic inspiration, perhaps I can say the same about the Bernstein/Schwartz Mass?)

I agree with Cary Boyce as to the work's experimental music theater roots. However, I do not believe it is a successful music-theater synthesis as is the Bernstein/Laurents/Sondheim semi - Broadway opera "West Side Story".
Sorry, I'll have to put Bernstein's Mass down more in the league with Kurt Weill's "The Eternal Way" than in the league of musical masterpieces to be performed on a regular basis by our performing arts organizations.

Footnote: The third work that I listened to repeatedly as a freshman was Messiaen's La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ (and which I did hear performed live at the Kennedy Center in 1972, under Antal Dorati). Now while others might consider this, too, a "flawed masterpiece", I would disagree and consider it, like the Britten -- but unlike the Bernstein/Schwartz -- a musical-aesthetic "masterpiece". (I'd probably say the same about Michael Tippett's "The Mask of Time" but would need to listen to it more). Does anyone disagree with my calling the Messiaen Slavonic-inflected Mass a masterpiece?

And what about the new recent spiritual "masterpieces" commissioned by Helmut Rilling, of Penderecki, Rihm, Golijov, Gubaidulina, and Tan? Of these, I might put the Tan, alone, down as a
"flawed masterpiece". To me, the rest are masterpieces.

Thanks for the great blog and open and free discussion space, pliable.
It depends. Bernstein takes a form that many, many other composers have used and he turns it upside down. Perhaps this is some sort of metaphor for the upheaval in society at the time. The institutions, even those inside Catholicism, were the same; however, the people were revolutionizing them and producing familiar, yet jarringly different, things. If I may, one must remember that the Novus Ordo Missae was coming into being (1975) during this period, so the Mass itself was undergoing revision. Bernstein seems to have picked up on this trend, both inside and outside the Church, portraying his Mass as both a religious event, a happening, and a cultural communion. The old order was becoming something new. One sees that in the arc of his Mass. On that level, the work is simply a masterpiece. Musically, the work is very good, but dated. Perhaps in 50 or 100 years that won't be the case; however, portions of it strike me as very "70s."
Hucbald said…
I'm not sure if I've heard this work or not. Is it the one that begins with a male speaker addressing God and ends with "... I wish to pray"? If so I've only heard it once, and was favorably impressed. It was on a public radio broadcast and I only caught that the composer was Bernstein, not what the piece was.

Oh, terrific blog by the way: Consider yourself bookmarked. And thanks for putting me in your Blogroll (I'll have to add one of those to my template one of these days).

Pliable said…
Hucbald, the synchronicity accerlerates. I was only looking at your fine blog yesterday. I wanted to contact you but couldn't see an email address.

Let's tell everyone. Hucbald blogs at A Monk's Musical Musings, and it's one of the best blogs I've visited for a long time. Anyone who starts their list of favourite music with Perotinus Magnus gets my vote anyway.

My score of Mass starts with the soprano singing Kyrie eleison, and ends with all voices singing All who dwell in this place, Amen. But welcome aboard anyway.

For information I don't use blogroll. I looked at it and decided the cure was worse than the disease. I just add the links in HTML. It's easy to cut and paste once you've done the first one. But call me old fashioned....

I've got posts on the two neglected Schumann requiems and Portugese polyphony from Filipe de Magalhaes and Duarte (not Alonso)Lobo coming up. So stay tuned.
Pliable said…
I guess it plays into the hands of the 'failed street chic' camp, but it is interesting to add as a footnote that four of the lines of the lyrics in Mass were written by Paul Simon.

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's payment was an acknowledgement, which appears on Page 112 of the score, and a pair of opening night tickets, which Bernstein forgot about...
Hucbald said…
Thanks for the compliments on my blog, Pliable. The Mass is NOT the piece I was thinking of. I think it was a Jewish prayer piece that Bernstein wrote that I'm thinking of. I'll have to look at a discography sometime when I get a spare minute.

Anyway, all my spare time has been spent recently entering Liszt's piano transcription of Beethoven's Ninth into my music printing program so I can proceed with the analysis. Now, if Apple would only ship me my new computer.

My favorite comtemporaneous work that is overtly religious would have to be Penderecki's "St. Luke Passion". I really think it is a masterpiece and wonder why it's not discussed more often. The Crux is positively blood curdling.
Pliable said…
Hucbald, I've got a lot out of
Cyprien Katsaris' playing the complete set of the Liszt piano transciptions of the Beethoven Symphonies on Teldec
It is 6CDs, and was budget priced here in the UK, but alas seems to have been deleted.

It reinforces the view expressed in my post Magnificent Mahler-lite from Manchester that reductions and transcriptions are invaluable study aids.
Pliable said…
Another interesting overgrown path to follow is Lucian Plessner's 18 minute transcription of extracts from Bernstein's Mass for solo guitar. It works very well. Some may say that as it is is pared down to just the bare musical ideas, and rid of quadraphonic tapes and sometime cringe inducing libretto, it is better than the full score.

A recording is available on a budget CPO CD
with other 'composer approved' transcriptions - well worth investigating.
Anonymous said…

The Jewish prayer piece by Bernstein is probably the Kaddish Symphony, featuring the text of the Kaddish prayer said for the dead. Eerily, Yehudi Menuhin recorded this just before he died.

On the Liszt/Beethoven transcriptions, Naxos has a number of them on CD, hopefully not deleted. I mostly have the Katsaris versions but it disappeared before I could complete the set and I am still short the Eroica. Probably the least successful transcription was of the 7th symphony, in my opinion--it just isn't quite right.
Anonymous said…

The Jewish prayer piece by Bernstein is probably the Kaddish Symphony, featuring the text of the Kaddish prayer said for the dead. Eerily, Yehudi Menuhin recorded this just before he died.

On the Liszt/Beethoven transcriptions, Naxos has a number of them on CD, hopefully not deleted. I mostly have the Katsaris versions but it disappeared before I could complete the set and I am still short the Eroica. Probably the least successful transcription was of the 7th symphony, in my opinion--it just isn't quite right.
Kathy said…
It is truly amazing that you posted this and I stumbled upon your wonderful Blog all in the same week. Just this past Thursday (the day before your post!), I became aware of a new recording of Bernstein's Peter Pan.

I heard a clip of Spring Will Come Again, which is the last track on that CD. (you can listen to a clip

That tune was one I knew well, although I could not remember in which Bernstein piece I had heard it. So, partly out of intellectual curiosity and partly because I hadn't heard it in a long time, I put on the Mass and listened with joy, melancholy, and rememberance of things past.

My college chorale sung the Mass in New York the year before I enetered college. As things go, my director recycled pieces of the Mass throughout my tunure there, but I never got to sing all of it. As I grew up on West Side Story, it seemed only fitting that I become involved with his Mass as an adult. I became so enamored, that when I finally did get a CD player, Mass was one of the first CDs I purchased and cherished.

My most poignant experience with it, perhaps, was a memorial service we sang in "Lenny's" honor at a temple in Northern NJ, which included, among other things "Simple Song." My director, you see, had studied with Lenny, and chose to mourn by celebrating his works in a worshipful setting.
In many ways, then, I feel have a personal relationship with Bernstein that I do not have with other composers.

I feel his Mass is indeed an underrated Masterpiece as, for whatever reasons, it touches my soul as no other work before or since, and it is still one of my life's goals to sing it. I do not have an unrequited desire to sing any other large work, so it remains the one that got away (so far).

By the way, the tune from Peter Pan that started me down this path is one from "Chichester Psalms." It is
track 5
of the CD you point to in your post about "Kaddish."
Anonymous said…
A dissent...

I think the Mass is not a particularly good piece, although it contains some good music.

I say this as somebody who likes Bernstein's music a lot, and somebody who liked the Mass a lot in particular -- there was a period, oh, a long time ago!, when it was probably my favorite piece of music. I don't know how many times I listened to it, and I still have the (now very well-used)vocal score I bought in those days.

But listening to it now, it seems like he was really phoning it in. Several things give that big one is that his borrowings/parodies of popular music idioms in the piece don't just sound dated, they sound kind of crude and forced. He obviously didn't have a bad ear; I think he was just in a hurry. Another is that hardly any of the numbers are really rounded off -- one is constantly being (abruptly) interrupted by the next. Perhaps this was intentional, but the effect is that it was all slapped together.

I read somewhere (maybe the liner notes of the CD?) that he procrastinated a lot over the commission, and barely finished the thing in time for the premiere. Perhaps he was ambivalent about the piece as well...
Anonymous said…
I think simple song is a wonderful song to live by.
I think the mass is greatly misunderstood, Maybe we have better understanding these days.
Dave P
Unknown said…
Bernstein's Mass was, back when the album came out, one of my favorite pieces. It has a huge emotional impact, particularly when staged well. Because of its "post-modern" aesthetic (was the term "post-modern" used back then?), the piece certainly IS very eclectic. And yes, there is much sentimentality. But then, wasn't Bernstein himself sentimental? It's not a dishonest piece and I think it still works today. Because it drew from pop rock styles of the times, parts of it DO sound dated today but that doesn't mean the pop rock music of today is any kind of improvement — just different.
Anonymous said…
As a relative newcomer to On An Overgrown Path, I wasn't aware of the original post on Mass before the Jan 2008 posting, but I'll put my name down for the unrecognised masterpiece. I admit there is a fair amount of kitsch in parts. The Tropes, with their weird mixture of gospel influence, rock instrumentation, vocal styles from opera and musicals, and classical harmonic complexity, can sound dated. But then it is a product of its time: I would suggest its sometimes cynical or bleak outlook reflects rather well the harsh conditions for many people in large US cities in the 1970s.

In my opinion, Bernstein was a master of conveying powerful images and entire scenes in a short passage of music, and sometimes that can sound like soundbites to a classically-trained ear. But in Mass I think that was not just acceptable, but an essential part of its quality.

But then I was in the Guildhall School for Music and Drama's Junior Department in the 1980s and was a member of the Boys' Choir for the GSMD's production of Mass in May 1986. I still have the baseball top, T-shirt and cap with logo that we wore for the performances, spent hours playing through the piano reduction that came with the vocal part - and best of all, Bernstein was there for the final night (May 10, I think).

Maybe I was overawed by being invited to take part (an admittedly small part) but it felt like an important production. The theatre department had pulled out all the stops, creating a raised crossroads extending to each wall of the theatre, with banks of seating in each quadrant, and one 'road' ended in a up ramp where most of the boys' choir singing took place.

I'll stop rambling now!

PS. Sadly I don't have any photos of the event, even though there should be one of me in the same photo as Bernstein, looking deliriously happy even though he stank of cigarettes! If anyone out there does, I'd be most grateful to hear from you...
Laura Erickson said…
Put me in the genuine Masterpiece camp. I can't speak to the musicality--dammit, Jim, I'm an ornithologist, not a music theorist--but the standard pieces of any Mass--especially the Gloria and Sanctus--are ethereally beautiful and thrilling--fresh even 30+ years after being written. The honest viewpoints (some cliche'--just as some people spout cliche's honestly) of the various people in the congregation ring true, as does the priest's steadfast simple and even rather blind faith. It rings equally true when his faith shatters, and then when the simple charity of the congregation leads him back.

I had the original recording--never had four speakers to hear how it was actually supposed to be played--and now have it on CD. I loved listening to it in college in the early 70s, and love it just as much today.
Unknown said…
It's nice to see these comments :) Thank you for the topic! :)
I've already bought CD with Bernstein's Mass, and I'm really surprised!!! I'm young (very young :) ) musicologist and I'm fascinated in this work. I think or I feel something true in it. Maybe now I'm too fascinated to say something more objective but each one way of expression in Bernstein's work is really meaningful for me. It's interesting idea to create these all blues and rock parts, for me it's clear emotional report - when he uses blues it's like he says: "I can say whathever - it makes no difference to me", when he uses rock music it's like... "It has to be stopped! I need to know something! I want to fight with all these problems!" It's clever I think. And easily understandable :)
I don't look at this like on the kitsch.
Since three years I haven't listened to so good and deep piece. And three years ago it was - Penderecki's Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi. I love it still :) And I agree - that's great idea to talk about Pendercki! :) (I suppose it is fair now to admit I'm writing from Poland :) )
Thank you for sharing your knowledge and reflections :) For very young musicologist :) it's invaluable source :)

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