Mass (Bernstein)

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MASS (formally, "MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers") is a musical theatre work composed by Leonard Bernstein with text by Bernstein and additional text and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy, it premiered on September 8, 1971, conducted by Maurice Peress.[1] The performance was part of the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.[2] Mass premiered in Europe in 1973, with John Mauceri conducting the Yale Symphony Orchestra in Vienna.[3]

Originally, Bernstein had intended to compose a traditional Mass, but instead decided on a more innovative form.[citation needed] The work is based on the Tridentine Mass of the Roman Catholic Church. Although the liturgical passages are sung in Latin, Mass also includes additional texts in English written by Bernstein, Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz,[4] and Paul Simon (who wrote the first quatrain of the trope "Half of the People"). The work is intended to be staged theatrically, but it has also been performed in a standard concert setting.

Initial critical reception, including a review in the New York Times, was largely negative,[1] but the Columbia Records recording of the work enjoyed excellent sales.[5]

Cast of characters

The original cast consisted of a Celebrant, three choirs, and altar servers. A full classical orchestra performed in the pit, while onstage musicians—including a rock band and a marching band—performed and interacted onstage.

  • The Celebrant – The central character of the work, a Catholic priest who conducts the celebration of the Mass.
  • Formal Choir – A mixed choir (SSAATTBB) in upstage choir lofts who sing the Latin portions of the Mass.
  • Boys Choir – A children's choir (SSAA) that processes on and off stage various times, performing alone, in antiphon, or in concert with the Formal Choir and the Street Singers.
  • Street SingersDownstage and often performing around the Celebrant and the stage instrumentalists, a broad group of female and male singers representing the congregation (and occasionally the musicians), who variously participate in the prayers of the Mass, or alternately counter those prayers in a modern context.
  • Acolytes – Assistants to the Celebrant, who perform dances and altar assistance throughout the Mass.


In the beginning all of the performers are in harmony and agreement. During the course of the Mass, however, the street choir begins expressing doubts and suspicions about the necessity of God in their lives and the role of the Mass itself. At the play's emotional climax, the growing cacophony of the chorus' complaining finally interrupts the elevation of the Body and Blood (the consecrated bread and wine). The celebrant, in a furious rage, hurls the sacred bread, housed in an ornate cross-like monstrance, and the chalice of wine, smashing them on the floor. At this sacrilege the other cast members collapse to the ground as if dead while the Celebrant sings a solo. This solo blends the chorus's disbelief with his realization that he feels worn out and wonders where the strength of his original faith has gone. At the end of his song, he too collapses. A bird-like (Holy Spirit) flute solo begins, darting here and there from different speakers in the hall, finally "alighting" in a single clear note. An altar server, who was absent during the conflict, then sings a hymn of praise to God, "Sing God a Secret Song[6]". This restores the faith of the three choirs, who join the altar server, one by one, in his hymn of praise. They tell the Celebrant "Pax tecum" (Peace be with you), and end with a hymn asking for God's blessing. The last words of the piece are: "The Mass is ended; go in peace."


  1. Antiphon: Kyrie Eleison
  2. Hymn and Psalm: "A Simple Song"
  3. Responsory: Alleluia
  4. Prefatory Prayers (Kyrie Rondo)
  5. Thrice-Triple Canon: Dominus vobiscum
  6. In nomine Patris
  7. Prayer for the Congregation (Chorale: "Almighty Father")
  8. Epiphany
  9. Confiteor
  10. Trope: "I Don't Know"
  11. Trope: "Easy"
  12. Meditation no. 1
  13. Gloria tibi
  14. Gloria in excelsis Deo
  15. Trope: "Half of the People"
  16. Trope: "Thank You"
  17. Meditation no. 2
  18. Epistle: "The Word of the Lord"
  19. Gospel-Sermon: "God Said"
  20. Credo
  21. Trope: "Non Credo"
  22. Trope: "Hurry"
  23. Trope: "World Without End"
  24. Trope: "I Believe in God"
  25. Meditation no. 3: De profundis, part 1
  26. Offertory: De profundis, part 2
  27. The Lord's Prayer, Our Father
  28. Trope: "I Go On"
  29. Sanctus
  30. Agnus Dei
  31. Fraction: "Things Get Broken"
  32. Pax: Communion ("Secret Songs")


Bernstein scored Mass for a large orchestra and choir, and also included an onstage groups (street musicians). Bernstein divided the orchestra into two parts: the strings, keyboards, and percussion are in the pit; while the woodwinds, brass, guitars, synthesizers and percussion are onstage. The instrumentation is as follows:

Pit orchestra

Onstage groups

Stage orchestra:

Bernstein included a note that the musicians in the stage orchestra are to be robed and also act as cast members. Bernstein also went so far as to include a footnote that the bassist and the keyboardist of the Blues band and the keyboardist, bassist and drummer of the Rock band are to be recruited as percussionists for the stage orchestra for the second movement.

Street musicians:

  • Percussion: 3 steel drums, claves, bottles, a tambourine, gourds, and tin cans
  • Voice: at least 45 singers (20-30 soloists are used from this group)

In his instructions, Bernstein indicated that the percussion should be played by members of the street musicians.


The concept of the Mass derived from three sources: the experience of conducting at Robert F. Kennedy's funeral in 1968 in St Patrick's Cathedral, Manhattan; the Beethoven bicentenary in Vienna in 1970; and a small piece "A Simple Song" he wrote for Franco Zeffirelli's 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon before withdrawing from that project after three months during which time he worked with Leonard Cohen.[7][7][8][9]

Paul Simon was also approached for music and lyrics for Brother Sun, Sister Moon, but he too declined.[10] However, a quatrain he wrote while considering the commission was later presented to Bernstein for use in his Mass.[11]



Although several performances were televised, none are available commercially. There is one DVD version:

  • 2004: "Leonard Bernstein Mass at the Vatican City (2000)" (ASIN: B0002S641Y) Douglas Webster (Celebrant) - Kultur Video

FBI warning

The FBI kept a file on Bernstein because of his leftist views. In the summer of 1971, the Bureau warned the White House that the Latin text of the Mass might contain anti-war messages, which could cause embarrassment to President Nixon should he attend the premiere and applaud politely.[12] Rumors of such a plot by Bernstein were leaked to the press. According to Gordon Liddy, White House counsel John Dean stated that the work was "definitely anti-war and anti-establishment, etc."[citation needed] Nixon did not ultimately attend the premiere; Nixon had this decision described in the press as an act of courtesy to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, because he felt the formal opening "should really be her night".[13]

Other major performances and 40th anniversary performances

Much of the original cast reunited in a production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in July 1972.

The European première of Mass was performed in July 1973 at Vienna's Konzerthaus with a cast consisting of students from Yale University, a choir from Vienna, and the Yale Symphony Orchestra, all conducted by John Mauceri. Mauceri, a protégé of the composer who studied at Tanglewood, was then a faculty member at the Yale School of Music and director of the student orchestra. He conducted the piece at Yale in the fall of 1972, at which time the composer elected to take the cast and orchestra abroad. Bernstein's Amberson Enterprises sponsored the production, which used amateur performers because of union restrictions on taking the Kennedy Center cast abroad. Michael Hume, the son of Washington Post music critic Paul Hume, sang the role of the Celebrant. Ted Libby, later a music critic for the New York Times and the Washington Post, was a member of the Street Chorus, as was the television actor Robert Picardo.

The Yale/Vienna production was filmed for television by ORF, the Austrian broadcasting system, under the direction of Brian Large, a renowned producer of live music films. To date, this production has not been released on video, though it was broadcast several times in the United States by PBS, in its "Theatre in America" series. The producers of the PBS biography, Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note, used clips from the film because no other high quality footage could be found. The design, direction and flavor of the production are redolent of the 1960s and 1970s, when Godspell, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar used similar anarchical styles to present counter-culture themes on stage.

In 1981, the Kennedy Center mounted a tenth anniversary production, directed by Tom O'Horgan and conducted by John Mauceri, that was broadcast on September 19, 1981 ("Live from the Kennedy Center" )[14]

In 1982, a production was mounted in Berlin's Deutschlandhalle conducted by Bernstein protegé David Charles Abell, directed by Wolfgang Weber and choreographed by William Milié.

On November 19, 2002 with the Collegiate Chorale and the Orchestra of St. Luke's staged a production in New York City with the late Robert Bass conducting. The Celebrant was portrayed by Douglas Webster and the Boy Soprano was sung by James Burnett Danner. Soloists included Geoffrey Blaisdell, Peter Buchi, Charis Fliermans, D. Michael Heath, Jan Horvath, Andre McCormick, Warren Moore, Anika Noni Rose, Liz Queler, Lori Rivera and others. The New York Times gave the production a rave review recognizing that the production was an appropriate rebellion to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lighting design was created by Matthew Antaky. Michael Conley and Diego Tornelli musically prepared the production.

2011 saw several performances of the Mass commemorating the 40th anniversary of its premiere in 1971. Among these were a production presented by the Anchorage Concert Chorus, Alaska Children’s Choir, and Alaska Dance Theatre in the Atwood Concert Hall on March 18 and 20 in Anchorage, Alaska, and the University of Colorado at Boulder in the Boettcher Concert Hall (Denver) on April 26. A full-stage production was performed at the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center in Dayton, Ohio, May 13 and 14, featuring the Dayton Philharmonic, conducted by Maestro Neal Gittleman, and actors, singers and dancers from Wright State University, directed by Greg Hellems, choreographed by Gina Walther, with musical direction by Hank Dahlman, as well as the Kettering Children's Choir, featuring John Wright as the Celebrant, and produced by W. Stuart McDowell.[15]

The Mass was performed on March 9 & 10, 2012 at the Adelaide Festival Theatre during the 2012 Adelaide Festival of Arts with Kristjan Järvi conducting. The celebrant was Jubilant Sykes, performing with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Absolute trio, and the Adelaide Festival Chorus and Children’s Choir. Soloists included James Egglestone, Carolyn Ferrie, Leah Flanagan, Adam Goodburn, Lane Hinchcliff, David Linn, Nic Lock, Beau Daniel Loumeau, Samantha Mack, Libby O'donovan, Mark Oates, Kirsty-Ann Roberts, Gary Rowley, Danielle Ruggiero, Sally-Anne Russell, and James Scott. The director was Andy Packer and the chorus director was Carl Crossin. A very positive review in Limelight Magazine[16] described the production as " a brave production of a brave work that doesn’t shy away from exposing the contradictions and hypocrisy of life with or without religion". This performance was described in Festival publicity as the "Australian première"[17] but in fact several earlier Australian performances were held: in Sydney in 1987 by the NSW State Conservatorium of Music, with Peter Cousens as the Celebrant, conducted by Ronald Smart, in Brisbane in 1986 by the Brisbane Chorale,[18] in Melbourne in 1989 by the State Orchestra of Victoria,[19] and in Adelaide at the 52nd Intervarsity Choral Festival in 2001.[20][21]

The Philadelphia Orchestra presented a staged version of Mass at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, April 30-May 3, 2015.[22] Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted and Kevin Vortmann sang the role of the Celebrant.[23] The Conservatorium of Music in Sydney again staged Bernstein's Mass at the Sydney Opera House, with Christopher Hillier as the Celebrant and Eduardo Diazmunoz conducting as part of the Conservatorium's Centenary.

On November 13, 14, and 15, 2015, a full-staged production of the Mass was performed by the opera, orchestra, and choir departments of the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University, with Steven Fiske as the Celebrant.[24] The production was directed by Gayle Shay, the chorus was directed by Tucker Biddlecomb, and the conductor was Robin Fountain.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Schonberg, Harold C. (September 9, 1971). "Bernstein's New Work Reflects His Background on Broadway". The New York Times. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Schonberg, Harold C. (September 2, 1971). "Kennedy Hall Gets Acoustics Workout". The New York Times. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Yale Symphony Orchestra - Our History
  4. The Official Leonard Bernstein Web Site page on Mass. Retrieved February 12, 2009.
  5. Peter Gutmann, Bernstein Mass, Inkpot #92, 24 January 2000
  6. "Revisiting Bernstein's Immodest 'Mass'". 27 September 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 Allen Shawn, Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician. Retrieved 3 April 2015
  8. Ira B. Nadel, Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen. Retrieved 3 April 2015
  9. Naxos. Retrieved 3 April 2015
  10. Marc Eliot, Paul Simon: A Life". Retrieved 3 April 2015
  11. R. Laird, The Musical Theatre of Stephen Schwartz: From Godspell to Wicked and Beyond. Retrieved 3 April 2015
  12. "Leonard Bernstein". Retrieved April 24, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Alex Ross, The Bernstein Files, The New Yorker News Desk, 10 August 2009
  14. The New York Times, September 18, 1981
  15. "DPO ready to take you on a few trips for its 2010-11 season," Dayton Daily News, 10 January 2010.[1]
  16. "Live review: Bernstein's Mass, Adelaide Festival".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Adelaide Festival // Mass".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "The Age - Google News Archive Search".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "AIV2001 - AICSApedia".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Review: Graham Strahle, “Aquarian Confusion: Bernstein, Mass”, Adelaide Advertiser, 13 Feb. 2001
  22. Philadelphia Orchestra, Bernstein's Mass, from YouTube.
  23. "- The Philadelphia Orchestra".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>