Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to commemorate the 1971 opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., MASS instantly became known as one of Leonard Bernstein’s most eclectic, complex and controversial works.
MASS premiered on Sept. 8, 1971, as a “theatre piece for singers, players and dancers.” The production explored the spiritual and political crises of the late 1960s, capturing the highly-charged political, moral and emotional environment of the Vietnam War era.
Commissioned as a tribute to the late president, the work immediately became entwined in controversy and politics. Based on counsel provided by then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, President Richard Nixon opted not to attend the opening, fearing anti-war rhetoric and possible coded messages in the Latin text.
Critical reviews were mixed. Harold C. Schonberg of The New York Times wrote: “There were those who dismissed the MASS out of hand as vulgar trash. There were those who were distressed about the treatment of the Catholic liturgy ... There were those who said that Bernstein had put his finger
exactly on what ails the Church today, and that his MASS was a relevant commentary on religious problems…And, there were those, especially among the youthful members of the audiences, who screamed and applauded and cheered and cried and said that it was the most beautiful thing that they
had ever heard.”
Bernstein’s MASS premiered as an enormous and ambitious piece requiring more than 200 performers, incorporating classical, Broadway and rock musical strains, as well as dance and spoken dialogue. Structured essentially as a Roman Latin Mass, it is sung and played by a choir and a pit orchestra.
Added to that are a blues band, rock band, street chorus and a Celebrant — a key figure in the production. As MASS progresses, the central character becomes more and more distanced from the people, or street chorus. The tension builds until the street chorus turns against the Celebrant.
While critics at the 1971 premiere found the work derivative and even tasteless, audiences loved MASS. The original cast recording flew to the top of the charts and remains the top-selling multi-album classical recording of all time.
More then three decades after its premiere, MASS’s key themes from its call for peace to the search for spiritual meaning in life resonate deeply with today’s listeners.
MASS continues to grew in popularity. In June 2000, a performance at the Vatican by Douglas Webster drew an audience of 8,000. Bernstein's MASS was greeted enthusiastically by the Italian press, which proclaimed: “The MASS of Bernstein triumphant in the Vatican” (Corriere Della Sera) and “Bernstein’s MASS conquers the Vatican, a grand success.” (Il Messaggero).
Murry Sidlin, dean of the Catholic University of America’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, has conducted MASS throughout the United States and Europe. This summer, he will perform the work in Germany, Lithuania and Slovenia.