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, the mystery of this score, and of Mr. Bernstein as a composer in general, is how he could live in the spotlight of musical life for so long and still register so little affect from developments in music since mid-Copland, on which “Mass” displays not a whit of progress. The truth is that while Mr. Bernstein has a certain fragile personality as a composer—albeit difficult to uncover, his need to be all things to all people keeping him in a perpetual identity crisis—his resources as a composer are meager. At any rate, he has not so far shown a very large command of a creative musical language.
Mr. Schonberg claims that “the jazzy, super-rhythmic sections” are “by far the best” and he adds that “Bernstein at his best has always been a sophisticate.” But those super-rhythms are nothing more than accented syncopations repeated in crescendo, over triadic ostinatis. Sophisticates or otherwise, most musicians nowadays regard them as corn. But even in this outworn idiom, Mr. Bernstein does not know where to go. Which is the underlying reason that his two-hour Mass is musically so static. And being unable to develop, Mr. Bernstein is forced to rely on contrasts—of dynamics, speed, color, along with innumerable extra-musical diversions. But none of these substitutes is of much help in slow and quiet sections (the two are virtually synonymous here, as fast is with loud). Thus, what I think Mr. Schonberg is really saying about the jazzy, super et cetera is that the slow music is so motionless and so lacking in event that he prefers the simulated movement of the fast.
The music, especially the repetitions, fade-outs, responses, quickly becomes predictable. One element or another, but usually the chorus or the percussion, hardly ever resists the temptation to echo or comment. “Let us Pray,” cries the Celebrant after an iconoclastic tantrum—a bad scene in the straight sense—and “thud” goes the drum. “You cannot imprison the word of the Lord,” someone, evidently not a student of history, sings, and the band promptly replies with a fa-sol-do, which is one of the “catchier” motives but, then, after some forty opportunities, who could fumble it? In fact the only expectation ever denied is the actual ending. This is cruelly protracted through a hymn, an Amen, a “voice” saying “Go in peace,” an orgy of embracing (part of the script), an explosion of mutual congratulating (possibly the same). Mr. Bernstein is never elliptical, but in his reluctance to let his audience go his timing is intolerably slack.
Other of Mr. Schonberg’s “fashionable elements include orchestrations by Hershey Kay,” this somewhat to the surprise of the musical reader. Mr. Kay’s techniques have postponed the extinction of many an incompetent composer, but they are hardly fashionable, and, besides, I wonder if all those woodblocks, bongos, xylophone-doublings-of-violins, and overworked timpani can be blamed on him. But enough! What about the old-fashionables? The choirboys, for instance, even if nowadays they not only sing sweetly but do cartwheels and hand-stands? And the incense (if disintoxicated)? And the marching high-school band? And the J. Arthur Rank gong?
And what about the props? Certainly that staircase to the stars had something déjà vu about it. And the choreography, which is Fiddler-like now and then, and in which dancers alternately crouch from the Almighty or exhort Him, like Disney’s Sorcerer invoking the elements: are these really still “in”? And finally, what of the fashionableness of the lyrics, a better than average example of which is in this couplet of the wrong Joyce (Kilmer) with Prufrock?
I might have been a simple tree
Or a barnacle in the silent sea.
* * *
On the great day itself, a Times editorial congratulated the Center on its opening—partly, I suspect, to offset the evaluation of its own architecture critic (overcomplimentary as it seemed to me, though the Center is inevitably an improvement on Unconstitutional Hall). The editorial went on to say that “the schedule of events is extremely promising.” (Another writer in the same issue described it as a “cornucopia,” listing Mr. Rod McKuen as one of the juicier fruits.) However, the editorial also expressed a fear that the economics of the Center would “dictate a quick and drastic lowering of the sights” (an impossibility, if opening night is meant as the starting point), and the fear that it might “go down the drain of shoddy commercialism” (but back up the drain is the only direction open). Well, what makes one kind of commercialism shoddy and another respectable, and which kind was opening night? And if not to commercialism, where would the Center go? Are there any noncommercial performing arts? And what, by the way, are performing arts centers for?
The ignis fatuus of art centerers, apart from the assumption that the arts should be centered, is the belief that the buildings themselves will somehow hatch the new art, that the “marble edifices” of a “$70-million dollar” investment will also provide the manure for cultural creativity. But the ingredients of the manure are far more important and more elusive than any physical plant. (Will craftsmanship again become one of them, an expertise of the kind that once enabled a composer, and at the drop of a hat, to dedicate a new hall with a decently made if dull Ode to St. Cecilia, or, on three days notice, and at the drop of a patron, produce a Trauer Ode?)
For the creative arts, as distinguished from the performing, may actually suffer intimidation, rather than derive incentive, from a Kennedy Arts Center. If the truly new continues to come out of the experimental underground—if it comes at all—one can hardly imagine it growing up on this stage and satisfying the only kind of audience that could support it. In Tocqueville’s prediction, the artist in the egalitarian society is everyman, but the only step in the prophecy that has so far come to pass is the disastrous one of the elimination of the cultural elite. For the custodians of the culture centers are moneymen, real estate brokers. That is why they understand Mr. Bernstein. He is property. He can be publicized, merchandized, sold. And in these terms, the custodians got value for their money, exactly the value they deserved. The only victim, apart from the public, is Mr. Bernstein, our greatest musical success figure.
Which is also why one’s sympathies are with him. That and the further reason that at the end he is, after all, spreading “love.” The “cast of over two hundred” hugs and kisses each other, the lights go up in the bordellored hall, and the choirboys walk through the audience squeezing hands and bidding everyone to “pass it on.” Soon Mr. Bernstein himself appears, and though nearly overcome, looks as if he means to kiss everyone in the house. Does he just possibly protest too much? And do you ever suspect that what he is really saying is “I loveyouloveme”? But we do, Lennie, we do!