Mass September 8, 1971
Mr. Bernstein’s latest musical is his weakest to date. But the title and the mixing of texts “from the Roman Liturgy and by the composer” (in a proportion of about one line of the former to fifty of the latter) do not amount to the monstrous impertinence one might reasonably, if prejudicially, expect. The work is too insubstantial to wreak any harm more lasting than embarrassment. So the Jewish Defense League should call off its picket line, and RCs may go back to boycotting the Tridentine vernacular and the Ordo Missae.
The Mass is a musical “message-drama,” a sentimental expression of Mr. Bernstein’s sympathy for good causes; a “Mass,” therefore, in spite of the Church, for his version is liberal, inclusive, and (absurdly) protean. But the implied criticism of the Church is specious and it fails to cut, so that one has an impression not so much of spite as of spate. Nor does Mr. Bernstein succeed in making his sympathy theatrically incarnate. In fact the Mass is scarcely invested with enough dramaturgical necessity to justify the staged format. And so far from abetting any real causes (which it is only doubtfully within the power of art to do), the Mass may have set some of them back.
That, at any rate, was the feeling of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who distributed leaflets reminding the gilded ticket holder that while he is callously “celebrating” in “marble edifices” and indulging in “splendor” and “illusions of grandeur” (sic), people are still dying in Indochina. Which, however, was not a very effective indictment of the facile liberalism that was the unwitting subject of the entertainment on sale inside. Yet the damage to real causes was probably not great. And, anyway, what concerns me here are not Mr. Bernstein’s feelings about them, but his art.
And little need be said about that. Mr. Harold Schonberg of The New York Times, for one, has already given reasons enough why the piece does not work. Oddly, though, his main musical reason was the opposite of the one that actually fits the case, which, of course, is not to say that the piece would have succeeded if this objection were untrue. The Mass is a “very chic affair,” he writes, poaching a bit on the notorious Mr. Wolfe, “that uses fashionable techniques.” But it doesn’t. It uses very unfashionable ones which the thickest application of fashionable make-up cannot hide. Even the socio-political subject matter is no longer timely, nor could it be unless it were in some measure timeless and for that the artist must be not merely up-to-date but some distance ahead. Only once, at the very beginning—which sounded a bit like Les Noces as it might have been recomposed by Berio—did the music threaten to become “fashionable.”
After that, when the curtain rises on a guitar-strumming Parsifal in denims, Mr. Bernstein quickly settles into a Broadway arranger’s chord chart of many a season ago. In fact …
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