A TALK BEFORE "MASS"

 

Salt Lake City, May 2009

 

Looking back on my father’s creative life, I see two main engines driving my father forward: the contradictions in his personality, and his perpetual confrontations with figures of authority. Of all Leonard Bernstein’s works, none demonstrates a grander synthesis of all these creative cross-currents than MASS.  As a result, MASS is his most deeply personal work.

 

Let me start with the contradictions. On the one hand, he was the most extroverted guy you could ever meet. How he loved people! All kinds of people. He loved playing the piano at parties till the wee hours; all-night talk sessions with students; noisy dinners with family and friends.  This was the Lenny that became a conductor and a teacher, the communicator extraordinaire, on the podium and on television.

 

On the other hand, Leonard Bernstein was a composer: an introverted, lonely dreamer who stayed up all night working, chain-smoking cigarettes and staring down his demons.

 

Within Bernstein the composer, there were yet more contradictions. He wrote for the concert hall, but he also wrote for the Broadway stage. He was a classically trained musician, but he loved the popular music he heard on the radio as he grew up in the 1920’s, 30’ and 40’s. His conducting mentor, Serge Koussevitsky, strongly advised his young pupil to stop writing for the Broadway stage; Koussevitsky thought it was low-class, insignificant music. Luckily, Leonard Bernstein didn’t follow his teacher’s advice – an early example of his lifelong impulse to buck authority.

 

Eventually, my father found ways to cross-pollenate the two kinds of music he loved best, creating a perfect bridge between the concert stage and the Broadway pit. Leonard Bernstein's orchestral music is joyous, full of tunes, and bursting with catchy rhythms -- while his Broadway scores are as elegantly constructed as a Beethoven symphony. MASS combines all of these elements, and more, into a single, passionate expression of my father’s own multifarious personality.

 

And then there is the engine of confronting authority. One of the original sources of tension in my father’s life -- and therefore also a main source of energy -- was his relationship with his creator: both the spiritual and the biological one. Leonard Bernstein was raised by his Russian immigrant parents in a fairly traditional Eastern European Jewish environment. He went regularly to synagogue, had his bar-mitzvah, and grew up in the dense atmosphere of his father Sam's devotion to the Talmud. Sam Bernstein ran a successful hair and beauty supply business in Boston, and was proud to be able to pass such an excellent business opportunity along to his eldest son.

 

But Leonard Bernstein didn't want to run the Samuel Bernstein Hair Company! He wanted to be a musician. Yet for Sam, who grew up in the shtetls of Poland and Russsia, a musician was little more than a beggar who bummed from village to village, from wedding to bar-mitzvah, barely keeping food in his belly and shoes on his feet. The story goes that Sam refused to pay for his son's piano lessons. After the famous last-minute conducting debut in Carnegie Hall on November 14, 1943, which rendered Bernstein famous overnight, some reporters challenged Sam about his reluctance to encourage his son's musical career, to which Sam famously replied, "Well how was I supposed to know he'd turn into Leonard Bernstein?"

 

So from his earliest conflicts with his father, Leonard Bernstein was already establishing a template for a lifetime of wrestling with his creator, of confronting authority. Over and over again, he turned to his father's beloved Hebrew biblical texts for both inspiration and disputation. These texts appear in so many pieces over my father’s  lifetime that taken together with the music, they document a lifelong, heated dialogue with God. MASS is a particularly impassioned chapter of the argument.

 

One of my father’s favorite ways to express conflict was to pit tonality against atonality. We tend to forget nowadays what an urgent crisis composers faced in the mid-20th Century. A composer who wished to be taken seriously by the academic musical community back then absolutely positively had to forfeit tonality in favor of the 12-tone vocabulary – that is, no key and no melody. There was no middle ground; either you wrote 12-tone music or you weren’t a “serious” composer. My father longed  to be included in the academic musical pantheon, but he could not quite bring himself to stop writing a tune. At the time, it cost him his very reputation to stick to tonality – but aren’t we glad now?! And in the long run, I daresay that Leonard Bernstein’s fondness for melody has not marred his reputation.

 

During the 1960’s, when my siblings and I were growing up, it was the Beatles, the Supremes, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones that provided the sound track to our car trips. My father loved our music. We spent hours talking about blues progressions, chord changes, modes and song structure. (Many of these discussions led to future scripts of my father’s televised Young People’s Concerts.)

 

To my father, rock music was the ultimate, uninhibited expression of tonality at the time. So when he wrote MASS in the early 1970’s, he used rock ‘n’ roll versus 12-tone music as his metaphor for confronting authority. The sloppily dressed “street chorus” sings in the vernacular of rock n roll, while the rigidly berobed formal chorus chants the church dogma in jagged 12-tone fragments. In the finale, my father resolves his musical argument by having the entire company – including both choruses -- sing one of the most beautiful melodies he ever wrote -- the chorale "Almighty Father." It’s as if the finale were saying to the 12-tone academic cartel: this is what I do, and if you don’t like it, tough.

 

In those days, my father’s personal struggles with authority found their perfect outward reflection in the anti-war movement. A lifetime of involvement in left-wing issues -- everything from the Spanish Civil War to Joe McCarthy’s  Communist witch hunts to the Civil Rights Movement – his sense of activism came to a head in MASS, where my father drew parallels between the rigidity of Roman Catholic dogma and the American government's inability to disengage from waging a senseless war in Southeast Asia. The “street chorus,” composed of confused, disaffected young people searching for meaning in their lives, invests their Celebrant with more and more trappings as they appoint him the healer of all their ills. Then, when he doesn't meet their expectations, they turn on him in their rage, and everything falls apart. MASS depicts a hydra-headed breakdown: a breakdown of the spirit hungering for religious faith; a breakdown of a populace searching for a trustworthy government; a breakdown of a leader clinging to the shreds of his own power; the breakdown of an artist searching for inner meaning and outer acceptance. It's a vision of utter catastrophe, a vision so thorough and terrifying that, when successfully staged, it can barely be salvaged by the optimistic finale.

 

Where did this profound sense of breakdown come from? As the daughter of the composer of MASS, I have always had the clear sense that my father’s despair was forged on the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

 

My parents adored the Kennedys. They counted themselves among the First Family’s friends. I had never seen my parents cry before November 22nd, 1963. On the contrary, they were good laughers. Our house was always full of laughter.

 

So on that Friday after school, when my father’s face distorted with anguish and my mother crumpled on her bed and sobbed, I felt my world lurch sickeningly on its foundations.

 

At the time of that assassination, my father was finishing the orchestrations for his Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish.” He immediately decided to dedicate the piece to the slain president, his beloved friend. How grimly appropriate it was that the Hebrew text in that symphony is the Kaddish prayer, the Jewish prayer of mourning for the dead.

 

But my father’s tribute to President Kennedy did not end there. Six years later, when ground was broken for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis called her friend Lenny and asked him, not to write MASS, but to be the Chairman of the Center! My father was overwhelmed by the honor. Yet being an administrator was probably the last thing he would ever want to do – not to mention the last thing he’d be good at. But how could he turn Jackie down? So he said yes. And then he was in agony.

 

As I recall, it was my mother who came to the rescue. She was the one who made the difficult phone call to Mrs. Onassis, gently suggesting that perhaps, given Lenny’s other obligations, wouldn’t it be more appropriate if he were to, say, write a piece for the inauguration rather than run the place?

 

And that is how MASS came to be born.

 

By the time of MASS’s completion in 1971, the nation had become a very different place from what it was back in 1963. The Vietnam War was in full cry; young people had become polarized into a movement that threatened to split the nation along its seams; and we had the very antithesis of John F. Kennedy for a president in Richard M. Nixon. For Kennedyphiles like my parents, it must have felt like the most vertiginous fall from grace.

 

This breakdown in the culture, this fall from the grace that my father felt was so much a part of the Kennedy era, is very much what MASSis about – and is very much why President Nixon declined to attend the inauguration of the Kennedy Center. He was even advised by the FBI to stay away from the event because there was a “secret message” disguised in Latin, hidden in the piece for the express purpose of embarrassing the President. The secret message? “Dona nobis pacem,” give us peace, just a line in the standard liturgical text of the mass. But perhaps one couldn’t blame the Nixon administration for squirming.

 

MASS had a polarizing effect on its audiences; they either loved it or hated it. The Catholic Church was appalled by many aspects of the piece. Some cities bowed under the pressure of their local Catholic churches, and cancelled productions of MASS.  Some music critics objected to the mixing of genres: how could Leonard Bernstein dare to combine a symphony orchestra with a rock band? And to many rock musicians at the time, the rock music seemed ersatz or square.

 

But now that almost 40 years have passed since MASS appeared on the scene, these issues have all but subsided. The 70’s sounds of the rock music are now fascinating artifacts rather than dated facsimiles, since the piece has long since shed the need to sound current. And by now, we’re all quite accustomed to the mixing of musical genres. We hear rock bands with orchestras all the time. But Leonard Bernstein, ever the wall-breaker, first broke down that wall for us, too.

 

As for the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II in the year 2000 actually requested a performance of MASS -- at the Vatican. Oh, if only my father had lived long enough to see that happen!

 

MASS may seem at first glance to be locked in its era, but the issues it addresses have lost none of their immediacy. The political struggles of the past nine years, as well as our involvement in yet another ambiguous, controversial war, make MASS speak to us as urgently as ever.

 

Maybe the most essential of all the contradictions in my father’s personality was his struggle with his own clashing emotions of optimism and pessimism. Leonard Bernstein worked so hard to make the world a better place; he never gave up on the goals of brotherhood and world peace that he held so close to his heart. Butwas the world coming to its senses? Was it in fact becoming a better place? Were we getting help from upstairs, or weren’t we? He wasn't sure, and we can hear him wrestling, as an artist, with the notions of faith, hope and despair in composition after composition.

 

Yet in spite of his occasional gloom about the way things were going, my father never gave up hope for a better world. That’s why MASS ends – had to end -- with a kind of rebirth, despite the shattered pieces of the sacraments littering the stage.

 

In MASS, the character of the Celebrant, who struggles to perform the religious rituals and find meaning in them, is without a doubt a projection of my father’s own self. Like the Celebrant, who acquires more and more garments that weigh him down as the demands of his flock increase, my father came to feel oppressed by his own success, by the world’s expectations. All those world-class orchestras and illustrious record companies that depended on him! All those audiences across the continents that clamored for him! Sure, it was exciting, but it was also relentless; at times he felt he couldn’t go on. It’s no coincidence that perhaps the most poignant song in MASS is the Celebrant’s very quiet, almost despairing “I Go On.”

 

A crisis of faith is also a crisis of authenticity. Much of what the Street Chorus sings about in MASS is how phony they feel in their dealings with the world: how their lives make it impossible to speak of doubt. As a world-renowned musical star, my father certainly had his own issues of authenticity. If you’re a superstar in everyone’s eyes, who are you to yourself in the mirror? Composing MASS was my father’s way, I think, of recapturing something real within himself. Yet for that reason, it was particularly painful to him when MASS received an ambivalent critical reaction. He’d rendered himself so vulnerable with this piece! So the criticisms really hur. And yet, live audiences tended to be tremendously moved by MASS. Maybe MASS is one of those things where “you have to be there.”  It’s a communal, shared experience that has a way of reaching deep into people. MASS has the power to make a person shout with excitement, weep uncontrollably, or feel deeply uncomfortable. But MASS will never leave a person indifferent -- and that may put it in the category of a masterpiece. Well, see how you feel when you go this weekend. You are going, aren’t you?!