What is a Catholic to make of a “Mass” in which the celebrant throws the Host to the ground and smashes the Communion chalice in fury?
The answer should be simple: denounce this sacrilege. And many Catholics did, when Leonard Bernstein’s Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers was premiered at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
Forty-seven years later, as the musical world celebrates Bernstein’s centenary, Mass still provokes a shudder from orthodox Catholics who think the composer was mocking the cosmic miracle of the Eucharist. And, even if he hadn’t made an act of desecration the climax of Mass, how do you defend dousing the Latin liturgy in radical chic?
The year before, Bernstein had been serving canapés to the Black Panthers in their penthouse apartment. It’s no surprise, therefore, that when he came to write Mass at the invitation of Jackie Kennedy, he should have decorated it with “hippie-era nostrums”, to quote the New York Times.
That’s a review from last month, by the way. The piece has just been revived at the Lincoln Center. Zachary Woolfe called it “bloated, bombastic, cloying, quaint and smug … a stale memento of the aftermath of the liberalisations in Catholic ritual inspired by the Second Vatican Council”.
I wish I could agree: it would be so easy to portray Mass, in which soft-rock ballads and the rhythms of the street disrupt the prayers of the liturgy, as the apotheosis of the “folk Masses” that have disfigured worship in the Catholic Church for half a century.
The problem is that so much of Mass is beautiful. Woolfe’s verdict is too harsh. Bernstein threw his kitchen sink into this work: Broadway, jazz, tone rows, Indian ragas, plus expertly engineered chorales and wistful string passages that start out like Appalachian Spring and then wither into late Shostakovich. I can’t hear much Mahler, but surely only a great Mahler conductor would have attempted such an experiment. It’s eclectic, but dazzlingly so, rather as the B Minor Mass is a showpiece for Bach’s musical borrowings.
Obviously I’m not putting Bernstein in the same league as Bach. But the ingenuity of Mass rarely lets up: there are fewer “hippie-era nostrums” than you might expect, and I don’t see why they should bother us any more than the Lutheran groaning of Bach’s weaker cantata texts.
Also, and this is the crucial point, Mass isn’t a setting of the Mass. It’s a piece of fiction in which a service is shattered by a congregation arguing with God, as Jews did and still do.
So, no, in my opinion Bernstein’s Mass isn’t sacrilegious. You may disagree. Fine: you can take it or leave it. Unfortunately, many Catholics can’t leave the pitiful cod-folk warblings that parish priests inflict on their congregations on Sundays, and which – unlike Lenny’s reckless, touching and extravagant near-masterpiece – drive people away from the actual sacrifice of the Mass.