Fifty years ago, on September 8, 1971, the premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers inaugurated the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. During the shocking climactic scene, taking place during the “Fraction” rite (breaking the bread) typically preceding Communion distribution in the Roman Catholic Mass, the Celebrant threw the monstrance and chalice to the ground. (More on the monstrance below.) Surveying the wreckage of broken glass and spilled wine, the Celebrant sang his heart-wrenching lament, entitled “Fraction: Things Get Broken.” The words, music, and action evoked multiple layers of breakage: the Celebrant’s faith in the sacrament; the assassination of President Kennedy; the years of social and cultural breakdown, catalyzed by the war in Vietnam, that followed; and, more generally, the fragility of human existence—what Milan Kundera called “the unbearable lightness of being.” Even as Bernstein’s lament gave voice to a particular historical epoch, it transcended temporal and spatial boundaries.

This transcendence accounts at least in part for several recordings of MASS during the past three decades. Kent Nagano’s (2004), thirty years removed from Bernstein’s original cast recording, appeared in the wake of 9/11 and the consequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Kristjan Järvi’s (2006; released 2009) and Marin Alsop’s (2009) recordings appeared at the end of the first decade of the new millennium. More recently, recordings by Yannick Nézet-Séguin (2018) and Dennis Russell Davies (2020) marked Bernstein’s birth year (1918) centenary and closed out the century’s second decade.

The Bernstein birth centenary was also commemorated in July 2018 by a production of Bernstein’s MASS at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. The event sparked a spirited exchange over whether MASS represented Bernstein at his best or worst. New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini opened his essay by recalling that these disagreements go all the way back to two reviews published the morning after the premiere. Writing in the Times in 1971, Harold Schonberg dismissed the piece as “fashionable kitsch,” both “cheap and vulgar.” In contrast, Paul Hume’s Washington Post review hailed the work as a “rich amalgamation of the theatrical arts” and “the greatest music Bernstein has ever written.” In his review for Commonweal (“The Media Is the Mass,” October 1, 1971), Ralph Thibodeau predicted that “there is enough symbolism in the work to engender heated argument for years to come.” However, noting an implicit “antipathy to organized, established religion,” Thibodeau opined: “The show will probably never make St. Peter’s.” He would undoubtedly have been surprised at the Vatican’s semi-staged performance, produced for the Jubilee 2000 celebration and available on DVD.

Why did the Kennedy Center open with Bernstein’s MASS? By 1971, Bernstein’s association with both the center and the Kennedys was already more than a decade old. In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed bipartisan legislation creating a National Cultural Center to be built in the nation’s capital. In January 1961, Bernstein conducted at the president-elect’s inauguration-eve gala, including his own composition, “Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy” (1961). During the Kennedy administration, Bernstein was a frequent White House guest. In 1962, the president and Jackie Kennedy launched a $30 million fundraising campaign for the National Cultural Center’s construction. On November 29—one month after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the opening of Vatican II—Bernstein hosted a black-tie fundraiser titled “An American Pageant of the Arts.” In addition to the all-star cast (including seven-year-old Yo-Yo Ma), the telecast evening featured President Kennedy’s historic speech on the importance of the arts to a nation’s cultural identity.

This was not an abstract project for him, and so he set to work on the piece he originally imagined as “A Mass for Patriots.”

A year later, President Kennedy was assassinated. Two days after that, CBS suspended its nonstop news coverage for a broadcast of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2—the “Resurrection” symphony—featuring Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein had just completed his Symphony No. 3, entitled the “Kaddish” Symphony. The title “Kaddish”—i.e. “sanctification”—denoted the Jewish prayer sanctifying the Lord’s name that is also frequently associated with death (“mourner’s Kaddish”). Bernstein dedicated the symphony “To the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy” and conducted its mid-December premiere in Tel Aviv. On January 23, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law an Act of Congress renaming the future National Cultural Center in memory of the slain president. At the end of that year, ground was broken for the newly named Kennedy Center, which after nearly seven years of construction opened in 1971.

Three years earlier, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and at the funeral Mass held in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Bernstein conducted the “Adagietto” from Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Jackie Kennedy wrote Bernstein a letter—which Alex Ross has called “the thank-you note of the century”—describing her experience of that moment. In short, when she commissioned Bernstein to write a musical composition to inaugurate the John F. Kennedy Center, the composer already had a long personal history with both the Kennedy family and the center. This was not an abstract project for him, and so he set to work on the piece he originally imagined as “A Mass for Patriots.”

Fifty years after the premiere of MASS, in addition to recent audio recordings, online resources make the work even more accessible. For contributing members of PBS, the ravishing Ravinia Festival production—staged and recorded in summer 2019 and then broadcast a year later during the 2020 pandemic lockdown—remains available on the Great Performances website. Several recordings are also available on YouTube, including the historic 1981 tenth-year anniversary broadcast production at the Kennedy Center; and a lively multimedia 2016 Czech production. Finally, the libretto is available online for ready reference.


Revisiting MASS via these and other various media during the past pandemic year, I noticed connections I hadn’t previously seen. Although the sprawling nature of MASS resists my simple summaries, five tropes (using Bernstein’s own word) suggest overall coherence and structure. 

Trope 1: Youth/Lost

It is easy to overlook Bernstein’s “First Introit” in MASS, which praises the God who gives joy to youth. Both the preceding popular “Simple Song” and the crystalline “Almighty Father” that follows can overshadow it. However, a revisiting underscores Bernstein’s key placement of the “First Introit” as the children’s chorus riffs on lines from Psalm 43:4 in the Hebrew Bible. In the older (pre-1964) Latin Mass on which Bernstein drew, the priest and servers (usually young boys) spoke the responsory “Introibo ad altare Dei” at the foot of the altar sotto voce: “I will go to the altar of God / Unto God, Who gives joy to my youth.” Bernstein’s handwritten notes show how he expanded this “Introibo” into a “Kids Game Song?” [sic]. They sing: “Here I go up to the altar of God. / In I go, up I go / To God who makes me young, / To God who makes me happy, / To God who makes me happy to be young.” On another page, Bernstein specified: “KIDS (like a child’s game).”

In his review of the 1971 premiere for America magazine (“Against Odds, It Came Off Well,” October 2, 1971), the Jesuit musicologist C. J. McNaspy noted the “dramatic freedom” Bernstein’s “theatre piece” had taken. For example, although it used “Latin texts, interspersed throughout” taken from “the Mass of some years ago,” it also included “passages never sung before”—like the Introibo ad altare Dei. Fr. McNaspy did not consider, however, why Bernstein might have retrieved and amplified this ancient opening.

Leonard Bernstein, 1978 (Hans Peters/Wikimedia Commons)

A possible answer is suggested by a moment immediately following the Kennedy assassination that later became became widely quoted. In A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1965), Arthur Schlesinger recounts an anecdote related by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (then Assistant Secretary of Labor) about an exchange with the Washington Post reporter Mary McGrory. Moynihan said: “I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually. I guess that we thought we had a little more time.” McGrory responded in grief, “We’ll never laugh again.” Moynihan replied: “Heavens, Mary. We’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”

In MASS, this lost youth softly arrives at its first conclusion in the lyrically poignant “Thank You.” The young adult soprano recalls what it once was to sing Gloria and Gratias Deo and to know the “glorious feeling / Of thank you.” But now, strangely, “though nothing much has really changed” and she “can’t say quite when it happened,” the thank you is gone. Youth’s simple faith drifts away subtly and imperceptibly. This loss will increase throughout the MASS until the climactic moment when the Celebrant casts down the monstrance and chalice. As he sings “Things Get Broken,” he poignantly refers to the psalms sung in his distant youth. They have turned to wormwood on his tongue and he wonders: “Was I ever really young?”

Trope 2: Lament

As “youth” passes from childhood to adolescent and young-adult street protests, the musical numbers bring to life MASS’s 1960s setting. A street chorus functions throughout as a Greek chorus, articulating the inner thoughts and anxieties of both the players and the audience. Their escalating outraged complaints evoke the marches, antiwar protests, and race riots of the time. The street chorus complaints reach fever pitch in the Dona Nobis Pacem (Grant Us Peace), a plea for peace paradoxically expressed in violent rage. “We’re fed up with your heavenly silence, / and we only get action with violence, / so if we can’t have the world we desire, / Lord, we’ll have to set this one on fire! / Dona nobis, / dona nobis.”

These street-protest numbers, evocative of Bernstein’s Broadway compositions, are among the most popular and accessible in MASS. But with some historical perspective, it also seems worth noting that this kind of complaint—“lament”—is a key literary genre in Hebrew scriptures. Psalms of communal lament are among the most powerful and poignant forms of Hebrew poetry. So are books of lamentations like Job and Jeremiah. Not insignificantly, Bernstein titled his first symphony—completed in 1942 when he was just twenty-four—the “Jeremiah” symphony. The three movements are entitled: “Prophecy,” “Profanation,” and “Lamentation.”

Although the “lament” genre has variations in its applications to specific psalms, it typically includes an invocation, a lament or complaint, and a request or petition. Seen in this light, the street choruses reflect more than 1960s upheaval. They also reflect Bernstein’s inherited Jewish sensibilities and vocabulary. But the genre does not end with petition. Also typical of the lament genre is a turning point. Although scholars debate what actually “happened” in antiquity at this moment in the psalm’s singing, the change in mood is radical and undeniable. Lament changes into praise.

Bernstein revisits this theme in ‘MASS,’ rewriting the Nicene Creed (typically sung or recited at Sunday Mass) as a statement of reciprocal loss of belief, both divine and human.

In broad outline, this is the form of Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony. It begins with the speaker’s invocation: “O, my Father: ancient, hallowed, / Lonely, disappointed Father: / Betrayed and rejected Ruler of the Universe: / Angry, wrinkled Old Majesty: / I want to pray. / I want to say Kaddish. / My own Kaddish.” The work then moves on to laments culminating in the expression of a reciprocal crisis in faith—humanity’s loss of faith in divinity and divinity’s loss of faith in humanity.

Are You listening, Father? You know who I am:

Your image; that stubborn reflection of You

That Man has shattered, extinguished, banished.

And now he runs free—free to play

With his new-found fire, avid for death,

Voluptuous, complete and final death.

In its original 1963 setting, this reference to humanity’s “new-found fire”—and its evocative pairing with the Lord’s “pillar of fire”—can be situated within the context of both the Cuban Missile Crisis one year earlier and, not long before that, the 1945 atomic bombings.

Lord God of Hosts, I call You to account! / You let this happen, Lord of Hosts!

You with Your manna, Your pillar of fire! / You ask for faith, where is Your own? /

. . . .

Your covenant! Your bargain with Man! / Tin God! Your bargain is tin!

It crumples in my hand! / And where is faith now—Yours or mine?

Eight years later, Bernstein revisits this theme in MASS, rewriting the Nicene Creed (typically sung or recited at Sunday Mass) as a statement of reciprocal loss of belief, both divine and human.

I believe in God, / But does God believe in me?

I’ll believe in thirty gods / If they’ll believe in me.

Bernstein’s anxieties over religious faith show remarkable continuity during the 1960s decade, and the street-chorus laments are at home with the millennia-old tradition.

Trope 3: Praise

However, the laments should not obscure the larger overarching centrality of the Kaddish for Bernstein—and, more generally, the centrality of magnifying and sanctifying the Lord’s name. Bernstein ingeniously weaves this Jewish tradition of praise into the midpoint of the MASS, where the ancient Sanctus hymn is sung early in the central prayer of thanksgiving, the “Eucharistic Prayer” (from the Greek eucharistia meaning “thanksgiving”). The Sanctus comes from the vision of the prophet Isaiah (6:3) where the terrifying seraphs cry out: “Holy! Holy! Holy!” In MASS, after an initial singing in Latin and English, Bernstein has the hymn return for yet another round, this time in Hebrew: Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh Adonai ts’vaot, / M’lo chol haaretz k’vodo.

This transcendent oasis of praise and peace quickly evaporates as anger continues its escalation. But for the sake of Bernstein’s intentions and the work’s overall structure, it seems vital to keep this moment in mind, a moment of praise, magnification, and sanctification—continuous with the Kaddish Symphony—even in the midst of profound crisis.

Trope 4: Accident

The climactic crisis in MASS—“Fraction: Things Get Broken”—centers on the gap between appearance and reality. This theme of unreliable outward appearances leading to doubt about inward reality is foreshadowed during the Kyrie, in a trope entitled “I Don’t Know.” Some commentators have interpreted this conflict in autobiographical terms—that is, as Bernstein’s coded reflections on feeling conflicted over public acknowledgment of his own same-sex attractions. (Worth keeping in mind: the gay-rights watershed of Stonewall took place two years before the premier of MASS.) “What I say I don’t feel / What I feel I don’t show / What I show isn’t real. / What is real, Lord—I don’t know.” One blues singer notes, “It’s easy to have yourself a fine affair, / Your body’s always ready, but your soul’s not there.” Another echoes: “Don’t look for content beneath the style / Sit back and smile.” Whether or not the autobiographical reading is accurate, the conflict remains the same: an epistemological crisis in knowing what is real and what is show, or, content vs. style. 

‘MASS,’ performed at Ravinia Festival, 2019 (Patrick Gipson/Courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office)

Closely interwoven with this appearances-reality conflict is the word “accident.” The Celebrant riffs on “accidental” appearances as he moves from lament to Broadway: “What are you staring at? / Haven’t you ever seen an accident before?” On a basic level, Bernstein’s use of the word “accident” simply refers to life’s fragile contingency—things get broken—often enough unintentionally. But on another level, Bernstein seems to be riffing on the very technical meaning that the word “accident” has in Catholic theology (via medieval scholastic uses of ancient Greek metaphysics). In the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation, the outward appearances or “accidents” of bread and wine—for example, the attributes of taste, touch, smell—remain unchanged. By contrast, the inward reality—the “substance” carrying or “standing under” those outward “accidents”—is substantially changed into the reality of Christ. This was no small issue for Catholics in the 1960s. In the fall of 1965, Pope Paul VI felt obligated to publish an encyclical on the Eucharist and specifically address transubstantiation. Entitled Mysterium fidei—the mystery of faith—the encyclical tried to meet the challenge of what Paul VI perceived as a seriously dangerous mid-1960s crisis in faith.

In MASS, these elements fuse together in the climactic moment where the Celebrant throws down the chalice and monstrance. Since a monstrance is never used at Mass, commentators asked from the moment of the premier what it was doing there at all. A practical answer is that Bernstein needed something to shatter, and a monstrance—an ornamented vessel with a glass encasement that holds and displays the consecrated host—served this dramatic function. But a more complex symbolic answer is that the crisis of faith here is precisely about accidents and substance—or, more broadly, the conflict between appearance and reality, style and content.

In “Fraction: Things Get Broken,” Bernstein ingeniously weaves together these multiple symbolic levels. Finally, underscoring the basic point, the Celebrant removes his external vestment and exposes the pedestrian reality cloaked beneath the priestly aura:

Take a look, there is nothing / But me under this,

There is nothing you’ll miss!

This final unveiling brings MASS back full-circle to the “First Introit”: “I will go unto the altar of God. / To God, the joy of my youth.” But now the Celebrant can only sing: “I feel every psalm that I’ve ever sung / Turn to wormwood on my tongue. / And I wonder oh, I wonder, / Was I ever really young?” After he exits the stage, a haunting solo flute hovers over the congregation’s long bereavement.

“How easily things get broken”: a cri de coeur about human existence in general and its myriad historical particulars—including the 1960s assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X (the “four martyrs” specified in Bernstein’s notes, along with 6 million Jews, including 1 million children); social unrest sparked by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War; and cultural upheavals symbolized by Woodstock (1969) and Kent State (1970). As late as May 12, 1971, Bernstein and his wife had hosted a fundraising party in support of Philip Berrigan and his five “Harrisburg Seven” co-defendants. (Earlier that January, Philip and his brother Daniel had been featured on the cover of Time magazine along with a substantial essay inside: “The Berrigans: Conspiracy and Conscience.”) Moynihan’s words haunt: “We’ll never be young again.”

To say anything beyond this, beyond “praise,” would be immodesty—literally, saying too much.

How was Bernstein to end the work? In a letter dated May 25, 1971—a little over three months before the September premier—Bernstein wrote poignantly about the problem of how to move “from this screaming anger to the serenity of Communion, namely, the end?” He judged the quandary “No easy job.” He then referred to an exchange of some kind with Jesuit “Father Dan” Berrigan (who was in prison for his participation in the 1968 Catonsville Nine action): “Father Dan said today: Leave them with the militant mood. Yell at them & turn out the Lights. They don’t deserve communion. Quote: ‘When they stop the war, then we can have Communion.’ How’s that for a blazing finish?” However, Berrigan’s suggestion did not fit Bernstein’s personal vision, which felt “somewhat sicklied o’er.” “I know that a glorious solution exists,” he concluded. “I pray we find it.”

Trope 5: Youth/Re-Found

Bernstein’s prayer was answered as he found that solution by returning to his roots. Just as praise has the final word in the language of lament and the Kaddish, so too lost youth in MASS is gradually re-found as the boy soprano riffs in tandem with the haunting flute,“lauda, laude, laudate deum.” (Several years earlier, in the 1965 Chichester Psalms, Bernstein had used this same device of a soaring soprano voice to introduce calm after “a joyful noise.”) The youth’s repeated riffs on “praise” rejuvenate his elders one by one (a hint of Mahler’s Second “Resurrection” Symphony) and eventually produce a glorious chorus. Although the piece overtly recalls the initial “Simple Song” with which the Celebrant had begun MASS, it is now stripped down to only the barest speech sounds: lauda, laude, laudate eum—praise (imperative singular), praise (noun), praise (imperative plural) him. (Is Bernstein implicitly evoking Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1955-56 Song of the Youths?) To say anything beyond this, beyond “praise,” would be immodesty—literally, saying too much.

This final modesty evokes deep continuities in Bernstein’s vision—for example, the exhilarating concluding chorus in Candide (1956). After a troubling and tragic journey, Candide and his companions at long last see unveiled Dr. Pangloss’s arrogant epistemological claims that this is the “best of all possible worlds.” The response to this revelation is an injunction to replace presumptuous speculation with humble manual work: “Make Our Gardens Grow.” A decade later, Bernstein concluded his Chichester Psalms (1965) with a similar declaration of epistemological modesty, the radical humility and dependence of a child described in Psalm 131 (130): Adonai, / Lo gavah libi (Lord, / My heart is not haughty). Whereas Moynihan had lamented that “we’ll never be young again,” Bernstein celebrates youth regained. But note that it is youth with a difference, youth tempered by the experience of doubt, disillusionment, rage, and death. It may be naivete re-found, but it is nevertheless a distinctly second naivete that has been altered by critical distance. Although the world returns, it is not the same world.

Bernstein arrives at praise coming from rejuvenation. Concluding the Kaddish symphony, the Speaker exults:

O my Father, Lord of Light!

Beloved Majesty: my Image, my Self!

We are one, after all, You and I:

Together we suffer, together exist,

And forever will recreate each other.

Recreate, recreate each other!

Suffer, and recreate each other!

This impulse to confidence has deep roots in Bernstein’s own youth. In 1945, at age twenty-seven, he had composed music for Hashkiveinu, the liturgical text sung in Hebrew at evening services.

Cause us, O Lord, our God, to retire for the evening in peace

and then again to arise unto life, O our King,

and spread Your canopy of peace over us. . .

                        Be a shield around us.

Remove from our midst all enemies,

                                    plague, sword, violence, famine, hunger, and sorrow

                                    ...Spread over us

                                                the sheltering canopy of Your peace.

Nearly thirty years later, Bernstein concluded MASS with an invocation echoing the Hashkiveinu, prayer for safe refuge in an accidental existence of easily broken things.

Almighty Father, incline thine ear:

Bless us and all those who have gathered here—

Thine angel send us,

Who shall defend us all;

And fill with grace

All who dwell in this place. Amen.


The Mass is ended.

Go in peace.

Stephen Schloesser, SJ, is professor of History at Loyola University Chicago. He is the author of Visions of Amen: The Early Life and Music of Olivier Messiaen (Eerdmans); and Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris, 1919–1933 (University of Toronto Press).

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