Thursday, April 12, 2012

Bernstein's "Mass"

A few years ago I purchased a humorous, Avanti-brand greeting card. The front of the card depicts a very grouchy cat on a yoga mat, doing stretches. The inside of the card reads, “I meditate, I do yoga, I chant … and I still want to smack someone!”
The other day I played my CD set of Bernstein's "Mass," conducted by Marin Alsop, as I drove to work. I first heard this set a while back during a long trip, In honor of Leonard Bernstein’s birthday, the XM-radio classical station played this then-brand new recording. 
At that point, I hadn't listened to the piece for many years. I first heard it when our area PBS station broadcast a production of the piece in 1974 or 1975, then I purchased the first LP set of the "Mass," conducted by Bernstein. soon afterward.  I loved it and played those LPs in my college and div school dorm rooms. The vinyl became worse for wear and I never replaced it.

So when the XM station played Alsop's recording, I hadn't listened to the piece for many years.  Listening to an hour-and-a-half piece while driving in one’s car is not exactly an “experience,” but I was quite moved all over again by the Mass. Hearing the entire piece uninterrupted was valuable. Mile after mile, I enjoyed favorite passages: “A Simple Song,” which a friend used at her ordination …the jazzy "In Domine Patris"… the skeptical, honest “I Don’t Know”… the pretty “Gloria Tibi” … the fearful “World Without End”… the hopeful “Our Father”/”I Go On” … the most beautiful and uplifting song, “Sanctus” …the stomping, sarcastic “Agnus Dei” .... the protest march “Dona Nobis Pacem” … the aria “Things Get Broken”… and finally the hushed conclusion.  If I ever see "Mass" performed live, I'm sure I'll bawl my head off the way I do when we see "Les Miz." 

There are other versions of the "Mass" besides Bernstein’s and Alsop's, but Alsop’s is very fresh---she finds "the elusive Bernstein groove," as a Gramophone reviewer put it----and Jubilant Sykes is an emotional, affecting Celebrant. The XM host called attention to the Mass’s early 70s, Vietnam-era origins, but I did not think Mass betrayed much of its Zeitgeist, any more than “West Side Story” sounds like a specifically 50s piece. In fact, allowing for a few “groovy” lyrics, the music and Stephen Schwartz's words sound quite contemporary. When I enjoyed my Bernstein LPs years ago, I didn’t realize I was listening to “music of the future” (the way I didn’t realize the significance of “Sgt. Pepper” and “Dark Side of the Moon” when I heard those records). Bernstein’s intermingling of musical styles seemed distracting and inappropriate to critics at the time but seems entirely appropriate today---and pursued by other composers like John Adams.
What struck me especially was the role of the Celebrant. Mass follows the Tridentine Latin rite, but “street singers” persist in interrupting the service with complaints, faith-struggles, personal regrets, questions about God’s concern for the world, blasphemies ("God said 'Let there be light'... and it was goddamn good!"), and ultimately threats of violence and destruction. I thought of Job and his friends, but in this case, the “friends” complain about God’s supposed goodness rather than defending it. Amid that cacophonous, 6/8 “Dona Nobis Pacem”, the Celebrant has his own crisis of faith and breakdown, smashing the consecrated host. Following a long solo (reminiscent of the mad scene in the last act of Britten’s "Peter Grimes"), the street people return to quiet songs of praises. With a whispered "pax tecum," they bring the Celebrant back into their group  and with a song and a benediction, the mass ends.
The Celebrant had been discouraged and broken by the protests of the street people. Lord knows enough pastors, unintentionally isolated within their calling, become disillusioned and wearied by the endless needs of congregations. But I wonder (considering the way peace is restored to the people following his breakdown) whether his suffering is also intended to be vicarious. He takes the people's struggles and doubts into himself, and sings fragments of their melodies. When he drops the cup, shocking though his “accident” is, Christ’s blood is shed. At the end, we may not have the world peace demanded in the "Dona Nobis Pacem," but we have a "secret song," the peace of fellowship and reconciliation. 
Without a commentary (like the CD’s notes), you might not realize how  Beethoven’s vision of fellowship in the Ninth Symphony is reworked for the Mass---and is a key to the whole piece.  As the CD notes quote Bernstein, “And what about the FInale of Beethoven’s Ninth---that sudden awestruck moment of recognizing the Divine Presence?.... Beethoven suspends all tonal harmony, leaving only harmonic implications; that’s what makes it so suddenly awesome, unrooted in earth, extra-terrestrial---so that when earthly harmony does return the incandescent A major triad does indeed cry ‘Brueder’!---Universal brothers all emerging together from that non-earthly Divinity” (p. 6). Beethoven’s theme is briefly quoted in the section "Meditation No. 2" but those harmonic implications are modeled in the Mass’ opening section, and also the theme is reworked in the Celebrant’s “mad scene,” finally making a bridge to the final song.
I was not raised Roman Catholic, and when I purchased the album, it became the way I learned the classic, beautiful language of the Latin rite. What a way to learn sacred words, you might think! But in the intervening years, I’ve heard those words so many times: baroque pieces, the Vivaldi's Gloria, the requiems of Brahms and and Durufle and Faure, John Rutter's music, and numerous others. Hearing the words as I'd first learned them was startling. 

They are wonderful words. The church, being both divine and human, may sometimes contain politics, empty gestures, and false-seeming pieties. But the liturgical words are not empty. They speak truth.  Set to music, they bring you all the more close to God.
But … faith is a struggle, and although the words are true, we may have no idea how to understand and “live” those truths. A few years ago the media reported that Mother Theresa had had severe doubts and concerns in her faith and ministry. I thought … duh. The deeper you go into real faith (as opposed to a kind of shallow respectability) you may encounter dark places and questions you can’t answer. In the words of my greeting card, you do all the correct religious things … but sometimes you still feel badly. Sometimes you still want to slap someone. Sometimes God seems far away. Sometimes you accuse God. Read Psalm 42, 143, and others, and you know that such feelings aren’t alien to Holy Scripture. Bernstein and Schwartz and their extravagant, Talmudic commentary on the Latin mass invite us to think, doubt, and feel--with one another, within the context of worship.  

No comments:

Post a Comment