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.