Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz — “God Said”: Brace for the Obscure (60s rock)! — September 18, 2022


585) Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz— “God Said”

Bernstein created mass hysteria in ‘71 with his MASS, a “theater piece for singers, players and dancers,” that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis asked him to compose for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. This weekend, MASS is again being performed at the Center.

In “God Said”, “a Preacher and the Street Chorus parody the Creation story and contemporary human beings who distort God’s commands to justify their own selfish needs and desires.” (https://leonardbernstein.com/works/view/12/mass-a-theatre-piece-for-singers-players-and-dancers). And it is goddamn good!

Michael Andor Brodeur writes:

At first glance, it might be easy to mistake “Mass” for other hippie-adjacent blurs of music, theater and spirituality from the period — “Hair,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the like. Stephen Schwartz, whom Bernstein enlisted six months before the premiere to help freshen the liturgical libretto (which mixes Latin, Hebrew and English) with contemporary lines, had only months earlier staged the off-Broadway premiere of his own breakthrough blend of the sacred and the secular, “Godspell.” But, groovy vibes aside, “Mass” endures as a rich and complex work in Bernstein’s oeuvre, and a vessel for some of his most personal revelations. . . . Bernstein fully believed that music — maybe even his — could repair the cracks in the world around him.


John Palmer adds that:

The text of Mass consists of the Roman Catholic mass with additional material written by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz . . . . [O]n the stage are a blues combo and rock band with a “Street Chorus.” Bertstein wanted to appeal to young people, and his inclusion of rock and blues elements and the abundance of young performers on stage in Mass were certainly influenced by the recent successes of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, as well as Schwartz’s own Godspell. . . . [An] amalgam of church chorales, show-tune melodies, folk song, rock, and blues, requiring over 200 performers, irritated some critics and pleased others. . . . Among the 31 numbers in Mass are rock and blues solos and a gospel-style, revivalist segment for the Preacher. . . .

[A]s Bernstein notes, “It . . . remains for each individual on the stage to find a new seed of faith within himself through painful Meditation.” Once it is found, the participants pass peace to one another and into the audience, “and hopefully into the world outside.”


Bernstein’s official website states that:

[He] created a broadly eclectic theatrical event by placing the 400-year-old religious rite into a tense, dramatic dialog with music and lyrics of the 20th century vernacular, using this dialectic to explore the crisis in faith and cultural breakdown of the post-Kennedy era. . . . Six months before the scheduled premiere, MASS was far from completion. Needing a collaborator, Bernstein decided to ask the young composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz to work with him on the text. . . . Bernstein and Schwartz envisioned MASS . . . as a fully staged, dramatic pageant. They mixed sacred and secular texts . . . inserting tropes in contemporary English that question and challenge the prescribed service . . . . The result was a piece that powerfully communicated the confusion and cultural malaise of the early 1970s, questioning authority and advocating for peace.

[T]he ceremony is performed by a Celebrant accompanied by a formal choir, a boys’ choir, acolytes, and musicians. His congregation of disaffected youth (the “Street Chorus”) sings the tropes that challenge the formal ecclesiastic dogma of the Church. As the tension grows and the Celebrant becomes more and more vested, the cynical congregants turn to him as the healer of all their ills, violently demanding peace. In a climactic moment, overwhelmed by the burden of his authority, the Celebrant hurls the sacraments to the floor and has a complete spiritual breakdown. The catharsis creates an opening for a return to the simple, pure faith with which he had begun the ritual . . . Though MASS challenges divine authority [and] question[s] religion’s relevance to contemporary life, it ultimately serves as a reaffirmation of faith and hope for universal peace. . . .

Bernstein [had] consulted with Father Dan Berrigan, a Catholic priest and anti-war activist who had been on the FBI’s “10 Most-Wanted” list before being apprehended and imprisoned. In the summer of 1971, as MASS approached its premiere, the FBI warned the White House that the piece’s Latin text might contain coded anti-war messages and that Bernstein was mounting a plot “to embarrass the United States government.” President Nixon was strongly advised not to attend and was conspicuously absent at the premiere. Responses to the premiere of MASS covered the spectrum. The Roman Catholic Church did not approve—some cities cancelled performances under pressure from their local Catholic churches—while other prominent clergy declared their support for the piece. Certain music critics disapproved of the mixing of genres, while others found the work to be inspired. For the most part, the audiences were deeply moved, experiencing firsthand the shared, communal journey of the composition.


Brodeur adds that:

The FBI had been keeping tabs on Bernstein, his leftist politics and his alleged ties to Communist organizations since his graduation from Harvard . . . . Internal memos reveal a flurry of “Mass” hysteria. . . . Robert Mardian, then head of the U.S. Justice Department’s internal security division, in a memo to the White House [wrote that “]The fact that two such controversial figures as Bernstein and Father Berrigan are collaborating on the dedication program would appear to offer sufficient reason for inquiries as to just what mischief they are up to.[“] . . . G. Gordon Liddy [wrote in a] memo . . . [“]To avoid embarrassing the President or the Administration, neither the President nor any high Administration official will be present for the opening . . .”


New York Times critic Harold Shonberg wrote after the premier that:

[MASS] was a combination of superficiality and pretentiousness, and the greatest mélange of styles since the ladies’ magazine recipe for steak fried in peanut butler and Marshmallow sauce.

Elsewhere, there is a wild melange of everything. One can hear rock, Broadway tunes that echo “West Side Story” and “Fancy Free,” raga, Beatles, ballads, Copland, chorales, revival‐meeting tunes, hymns and marching bands. . . . Musicalls, it is a stylistic phantasmagoria that uses the fashionable techniques. Amplification, for instance. Everything is amplified, as at a rock concert—the singers, the orchestra, and there also is lavish use of four‐track pre‐recorded tape. The result can be ear‐splitting. . . . At times the Mass is little more than fashionable kitsch. It is a pseudo‐serious effort at rethinking the Mass that basically is, I think, cheap and vulgar. It is a show‐biz Mass, the work of a musician who desperately wants to be with it.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/music/2022/09/08/resurrecting-bernsteins-epic-kennedy-center-opener/; https://www.nytimes.com/1971/09/09/archives/bernsteins-new-work-reflects-his-background-on-broadway.html

Jamie Bernstein, the composer’s daughter, recalls that:

[My father] was devastated [by the critical reception]. He had really exposed himself in this piece in so many ways. . . . It has more of him in it than anything else he ever wrote. And because of that, because he rendered himself so vulnerable, it hurt doubly to have the work be so criticized. I . . . think he was half hoping that . . . the scales would fall from everyone’s eyes and they would realize we all have to get along, war is terrible, and let’s change our ways. I really think that there was a part of my dad that felt like if he could just write that good enough piece, he could change the world. . . . I only wish my dad had lived long enough to see “Mass” being invited to be performed in the Vatican by Pope John Paul II [in 2000]. He would have felt so vindicated!


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