In 1897 Gustav Mahler, born Jewish, converted to Roman Catholicism to take up the position of music director of the Vienna Court Opera. While Mahler’s conversion is often viewed as a matter of professional convenience and conformity, it is also true that Christian texts and Christian feeling were powerfully important in his music, including the Second, or “Resurrection,” Symphony, composed before his conversion, and the Eighth Symphony, composed afterward, with its Christian hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus.” Yet when asked whether he would compose a Catholic Mass, Mahler demurred, insisting that he could never set the Credo.
Leonard Bernstein, the first triumphantly successful Jewish-American conductor, is the musician most responsible for the postwar rediscovery of Mahler’s symphonies in America and Europe. Bernstein, unlike Mahler, never considered converting to Christianity, and when his Russian mentor Serge Koussevitzky (conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and himself a convert from Judaism) suggested a discreet change of name (“Leonard Burns”), the young musician could not have been less interested. Yet when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis proposed to Bernstein that he compose a piece to inaugurate the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., he wrote a Roman Catholic Mass for the occasion, to honor and commemorate America’s first Roman Catholic president.
“I’ve always had a deep interest in Catholicism in all its aspects, its similarities and dissimilarities to Judaism,” Bernstein once said. The Second Vatican Council, in the early 1960s, had authorized a controversial new ecumenicism, an openness to the religious concerns of other faiths, and a historic reconciliation with Judaism in the Nostra Aetate of 1965, a decree which embraced the Jews as the people of the Old Testament and rejected the accusation, prevailing for centuries, that they were collectively responsible for the death of Christ. In Bernstein’s Mass, first performed at the Kennedy Center in 1971 and recently conducted by Louis Langrée at the Lincoln Center Mostly Mozart Festival in honor of Bernstein’s centennial year, the composer offered a musical perspective on the questions of religious faith that transcended denominational boundaries.
Bernstein begins Mass traditionally with the text of “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord have Mercy), as in Bach’s B-Minor Mass and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Though Bach was a devout Lutheran and Beethoven a barely practicing Catholic, neither could have imagined Bernstein’s utterly alienating setting of the Kyrie: prerecorded voices moving mechanically through resolutely atonal musical lines. Bernstein’s chorus and orchestra remain impassive in the presence of this recorded introduction, and finally Mass comes alive when a young man steps forward with a guitar and begins a simple ballad of praise:
Sing God a simple song, lauda, laudē.
Make it up as you go along, lauda, laudē.
In 1971 young men and women could be heard strumming guitars at masses across…
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