We might presume to know why composers write music based on religious texts. Certainly it does seem in some cases that composers had extra musical reasons. Beethoven's Missa Solemnis is an example, where not only does it feel like a very large scale religious work, but Beethoven's own description of it suggests that he had motives other than simply musical ones. Bernstein's Mass on the other hand presents some big conundrums. Musically it is not rooted in an obvious tradition of religious music, and Bernstein was not brought up in a Catholic tradition. He did write other pieces perhaps touching on religious themes, though not necessarily Christian ones.
Maybe many reviewers and critics have dismissed Bernstein's "religious" music, but it seems strange that such an able and thoughtful man would write music without considering the extra musical effects. It would no doubt be possible for a declared atheist (I'm not suggesting that Bernstein was one) to write a musical mass as a purely technical exercise, or cynically for money or a commission, but many would find that slightly implausible. Some composers clearly align themselves to a religion. James MacMillan is an obvious contemporary example. Some composers may have started "in one religion" and then moved to another - examples include Mendelssohn and Mahler, though arguably this was for pragmatic rather than reasons based on belief. Perhaps similarly, Bernstein, who one asumes was brought up with Jewish traditions, may have experimented with different religions, though I know of no evidence for this. There would not seem to have been any practical necessity for him to show interest in other religious traditions, where earlier composers might have found it helpful to align themselves differently and publically.
Mass has been declared as a theatre piece. We could just write it off as a possibly poor piece of music, but questions still remain about why it was written, and what function it is to perform.
Last edited by Dave2002; 28-06-12 at 05:16.
Interesting post Dave. No doubt others know much more about the origins of this piece, and how it can be best used.
However , when I first read your post, my initial reaction was that, whatever your religious or moral views, the Mass , both as liturgy and as the basis for a musical setting, is clearly very powerful.
It has a structure that moves us through a number of phases which can be strongly emotive, and perhaps cathartic, even for the non believer.
for myself, my reaction to both the religious service, and the meaning within the musical setting tends to just be to "Go with it". The structure of the Mass has survived for a long time, and for all the bad or unsympathetic resonances that it may have for non believers, it is obviously a structure that can offer something rewarding and worthwhile.
Perhaps a useful question might be to ask what other texts are available which could perform a similar role ...or maybe what texts we been allowed to have !!
Just some random thoughts. Saturday tea time, so its the best I can do !
Composers often attach their music to forms/genres which have garnered serious attention (including theirs) over the decades perhaps in the hope that it will garner more performances for their music. Hence the several hundred symphonies and solo concertos that have been written in the latter 20th centry alone.
Perhaps Bernstein wanted to write a vocal work with some chance of getting into the choral repertory. 'Mass', 'Requiem' or 'Magnifcat' would be the most obvious contenders. And is Bernstein's Chichester Psalms in part a response to IS's masterly Symphony of Psalms?
Bernstein's Mass was written on a commission from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.. If I am not wrong the title of the work was Mass: A theater piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. Bernstein took the commission. I had the original LP of this work with had Alan Titus as the Celebrant. I think it is a very interesting work that has suffered from not being a Mass per se but a Theater work with religious texts. It is a bit of a Rock Musical Mass. It was written at the time of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. I have recently bought the Alsop recording featuring Jubilant Sykes. I think that it has survived I am not sure that it has had great critical reception but there have been 2-3 recordings in recent history.
Like his Third Symphony (Kaddish), Bernstein is taking a well-known Religious ritual to question & criticize Religion, vent his spleen on God and then forgive Him in a reconciliatory finale. It is a particularly Lennie-ish take on the problems of being a Believer in the days of Vietnam and post-Auschwitz. Both works are intensely sincere declarations of an individual's Faith in a fallible God.
I don't think either are particularly good pieces.
I agree but I think I prefer the Mass to the Kaddish Symphony which was dedicated to the memory of JFK.
I'm not particularly fond of either the Mass or the Kaddish Symphony. I hadn't picked up that LB wrote the Mass on commission. I don't suppose money was such a great motivator, though I could be wrong! It would seem that Mass at least is an "event" piece, and LB might have identified with the opening of the JFK Center and the aims of the center. For such occasions self promotion might be a motivator, though by then surely LB didn't need that. There are many such event pieces, both short and over long and grandiose, which don't survive after the initial event, though some do - such as Parry's "I was glad" and Handel's "Zadok the Priest".
Nor do they seem to have aged or travelled well. Both works are unpleasant reminders for me, and music with speaker/celebrant seems better experienced live.
Originally Posted by ferneyhoughgeliebte
However, I did find Willard White in Kaddish a rare rewarding success (RLPO/Schwarz), and the bonus is Chichester Psalms (through which I have so many pleasant memories) in a cracking performance.
Mass is overdue for a listen by me - is it due on R3? Otherwise it's the Naxos to be unwrapped.
The Bernstein Mass will be on R3 on the 6th August I expect as its being performed at the Proms (I'm going to hear/see it).