Mass: A Theatre Piece For Singers, Players and Dancers – Leonard Bernstein

The MARK’S VINTAGE VINYL page features something from Mark’s collection of recordings from over the years. Most of it is on vinyl – hence the name – though there will be a few entries from his CDs (remember those?).

Mass: A Theatre Piece For Singers, Players and Dancers, written and conducted by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and Leonard Bernstein

  • Soundtrack to the musical, music composed by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and Bernstein, with a small contribution by Paul Simon. The musical premiered in September 1971 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., the debut performance at the center when it opened that year. This soundtrack album was released that same year.
  • Bernstein was a huge figure in the world of classical music, film soundtracks and stage musicals, especially in the 50s and 60s. He composed operas, ballets, orchestral symphonies, chamber music, choral works, and he was famous as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969. His most famous work was the music to the stage musical and film West Side Story.
  • With the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971, JFK’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, commissioned Bernstein to develop a musical that would be premiered at the opening of the venue. He chose the Catholic Mass as a topic, but with a controversial interpretation of it. The major elements of the Mass (in Latin) are covered, but as the Mass progresses, songs are performed by “street singers” that represent the congregation that suggest God and the Mass are not relevant in their lives. The climax occurs when the Celebrant smashes the consecrated bread and wine in a furious rage. Ultimately, the faith of all is restored.
  • The songs are supported by a full orchestra, as well as a rock & roll band. They are modern rock songs (in 1971 terms), in the spirit of the popular rock operas of the time (Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell and Hair). 
  • I watched the performance of a tenth anniversary revival of the show that was broadcast on public television in September 1981, and the next day, I ran to my local record store to find the soundtrack. I was awed by the performance – the beautiful staging, and the audacity of the desecration of the holiest parts of the Mass were compelling to me.
  • Generally, the critics did not like the work, and obviously the Catholic Church condemned it. That’s OK – I liked how provocative it was. I found a 4 minute clip on YouTube that shows small segments of some of the show – from beginning to end. It’s from a 2016 performance in the Czech Republic, and it gives you a great sense of the intensity of the show. If you want to watch the entire 2-hour 1981 PBS show, it’s available on YouTube also. Both are below.

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