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Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, 1960; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

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 America in the relaxed liturgies that followed Vatican II.

Here the singer is the Celebrant and dramatic protagonist of Bernstein’s Mass, and at Lincoln Center the role was performed by the young baritone Nmon Ford, in glorious voice, lyrically lifting up his voice to the Lord on Bernstein’s ascending musical line. Ford made his first appearance in a tight white T-shirt, jeans, and yellow sneakers, later to be covered with flowing priestly robes. Only with the conclusion of the Celebrant’s song does the live chorus give voice to a new “Kyrie Eleison,” now a riotous circus march, marked “Allegro gioioso,” and sung by a “street chorus” of ordinary laymen. Together with the marching brass and the wind players, they skipped joyously down the aisles of David Geffen Hall. Lincoln Center offered a rather self-conscious retrospective staging, with costumes and mannerisms that almost caricatured the countercultural moment and a relentless choreography of whirling and gyrating.

Vatican II moved to bring the Catholic Church closer to the laity, most notably by approving Mass in the vernacular, but also by turning the priest at the altar around so that he faced his congregation. Bernstein composed a Mass in this post-conciliar spirit, bringing the celebration literally into the lay public space of the concert hall, into the aisles and among the audience, and notionally into the streets, while offering music in an eclectic and accessible succession of vernacular styles, ranging from tonal classical and hummable Broadway to rock and roll. For Bernstein Mass was not just a coming to terms with the promise of a new and ecumenical Roman Catholic Church, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a coming to terms, both musically and politically, with the revolutionary currents of the 1960s, with a younger generation that was not his generation. Bernstein himself was the enfant terrible of the 1940s, turning fifty in 1968.

The “Gloria” section of Bernstein’s Mass begins with bongo drums accompanying the Celebrant in 5/8 time, a children’s chorus then picking up the meter, and finally the full chorus joining fortissimo with an almost hammering rhythmic intensity in fast duple meter on a single note. The nimble Latin setting of “Gloria in excelsis Deo” gives way to the vernacular English and the most famous lyrics in Mass. They follow the same musical line, the same repeated rhythmic note, but offer the opposite spiritual sentiment: no glory at all to God in the highest.


Half of the people are stoned
and the other half are waiting for the next election.
Half the people are drowned
and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.

The score notes, “This quatrain was a Christmas present from Paul Simon,” and Simon’s name gave the project some of the youth credibility that Bernstein notably lacked in 1971. Bernstein once demanded to know what Simon honestly thought of one of his efforts at writing rock and roll. “I think it’s lousy,” said Simon. “It’s just generic rock and roll. Why would you be writing that?”

Bernstein’s daughter Jamie has just published a memoir, Famous Father Girl, which offers some answers to Simon’s question; growing up as a 1960s teenager, she was one of her father’s principal links to the youth culture of the decade. “Daddy loved the Beatles too,” she reports:

When a new Beatles album came out, I would run into his studio…. He’d slap the record right onto his stereo system, crank up the volume, and we’d sit together on his couch to scrutinize the lyrics while the album played. “Hey, that’s a sitar!” he exclaimed when he first heard “Norwegian Wood.”

“Norwegian Wood” appeared on the Rubber Soul album of 1965, the year that Simon and Garfunkel were working on the Sounds of Silence album, and that Bernstein composed the exquisite Chichester Psalms, a choral treatment of the Hebrew texts from the Old Testament. It might have served as a model for Mass, if the times were not so rapidly changing.

In 1969, the year of Woodstock, Bernstein stepped down as music director of the New York Philharmonic and began to devote himself more intently to Mass. Jamie started taking him to the Fillmore East on Second Avenue: “When we went to the Fillmore to see Blood, Sweat & Tears, Daddy came along,” she reports. “It was pretty loud for him, but he loved the excitement of the music, the kids, the huge old vaudeville theater reeking of pot.” The Who performed the rock opera Tommy at the Fillmore East in 1969. “I brought my father along yet again,” writes Jamie. “He was a big Tommy fan. Like me, he was thrilled by the sheer ambition of it: the long form, the grandiosity. And they even used French horns.” Bernstein conducted the Verdi Requiem and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in 1969 as part of his farewell season with the Philharmonic, so he had the opportunity to think about the great European tradition of religious composition alongside the new phenomenon of the rock opera. Mass arguably synthesizes those genres, creating a classical religious Mass that is simultaneously a rock opera. If the Who could use French horns, then Bernstein could use electric guitars, and he did.

As Bernstein composed in a frenzy over the summer of 1971 for the premiere in September, he played at the piano what he’d managed to compose during the day, and his two older teenage children, Jamie and Alexander, were summoned to attend. Jamie recalls the “squirming” awkwardness of this involvement with their father’s creative process:

“Listen to this!” he would say, and we’d follow him to the piano, where he’d slap the paper against the rack, then accompany himself croaking out whatever he’d written that afternoon. Alexander and I were a little uneasy with the rock music stuff…. Any self-respecting teenager feels uncomfortable when a parent seems to try too hard to be in-with-the-kids…. Our response always needed to be “Wow, that’s great!” And we’d leave it politely at that.

In Jamie’s memoir, Bernstein’s anxieties, even insecurity, about his own genius are fully explored, and indeed confirmed by the family members who were supposed to provide unadulterated devotion even when they were squirming. Jamie writes about Mass with a frankness that combines elements of both tenderness and cruelty:

Particularly embarrassing for me was the clear resemblance of the main character, the Celebrant, to Daddy himself. The Celebrant is the charismatic leader, the one the young people love…. [But] he struggles with his own doubts; can he come through for his flock? Does he even believe in what he’s doing? The piece had become, among other things, a meditation on the cumulative effects of adulation, the trappings of success, the mounting pressure of the public’s ever-increasing expectations. It becomes too much for the Celebrant. He finally cracks up…and has the composer’s proxy nervous breakdown.

Bernstein as a conductor could identify with the burdens of the Celebrant’s sacerdotal leadership.


Nmon Ford at Lincoln Center captured the role’s many musical and dramatic nuances: from the plaintive faith of the opening ballad, to the bongo-driven celebration of the “Gloria,” to the waltzing defiance of “The Word of the Lord” in 9/8 time, to the anguished lyricism of Bernstein’s beautiful setting of the Lord’s Prayer. Ford’s sweetest note was the pianissimo high F on “lead”—“lead us not into temptation”—and he managed to suggest the ways that sexual charisma, which Bernstein himself certainly possessed, might intersect with cult ascendancy. There are moments in Mass that seem to allude to the American mythotype of Elmer Gantry: the need for adulation that could lead the Celebrant into the temptation of charlatanism. Jamie Bernstein has no doubt that Mass is autobiographical: “Mass, with all its flaws, its grandiosity, its daring, and its tremendous, broken heart—it simply was Daddy.”

The conductor John Mauceri, who worked closely with Bernstein, brought his own brilliant Yale Symphony Orchestra production of Mass to Vienna in 1973. Mauceri told me that the one thing Bernstein would not tolerate was the casting of the Celebrant as an older man close to his own age. In 1973, Bernstein met and fell in love with a man in his early twenties named Tom Cothran, wreaking havoc in the composer’s family life, and inaugurating a period in which he would pursue youth desperately, even self-destructively.

Dominique Nabokov

Leonard Bernstein and his daughter Jamie, New York City, 1967

For the Bernstein centennial, musicologist Paul Laird has produced a short “critical life” that sums up its subject in less than two hundred pages of text, a spare treatment for a figure of such Rabelaisian dimensions, and certainly this new biography does not replace Humphrey Burton’s much fuller work, which has also been reissued for the centennial.* Laird’s concise format, however, has the advantage of laying bare the chronological structure of Bernstein’s career. In ninety pages you quickly see how much he accomplished in the first forty years of his life. Before he graduated from Harvard he had established close (and in part romantic) relationships with the composer Aaron Copland and the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos. While still in his twenties he became the protégé of Koussevitzky, made his breakthrough broadcast conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic (replacing the indisposed Bruno Walter), composed his first symphony, “Jeremiah,” and had stage triumphs with the ballet Fancy Free and the related musical On the Town.

Before he turned forty, he had composed his second symphony (“The Age of Anxiety”) and his violin concerto (“Serenade after Plato’s Symposium”), his marvelous one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, as well as the musicals West Side Story, Candide, and Wonderful Town. In 1951 he married the Chilean-born actress Felicia Montealegre and embarked upon family life. He became a Jewish-American sensation in Israel, as Felicia observed: “Lenny is their God, his name is magic everywhere.” In 1957—the year West Side Story opened on Broadway and Bernstein appeared on the cover of Time—he turned thirty-nine, the age at which Chopin died, and if he had died in 1957 he would be remembered as a man of astonishingly productive and multifarious genius across a short but charmed life.

In 1958, Bernstein began a decade as musical director of the New York Philharmonic and became one of the most celebrated conductors in the world, as he reached out from the concert hall to a far broader audience with his recordings for Columbia and with his televised Young People’s Concerts, presenting classical music to his children’s generation. Bernstein seized upon the Mahler centennial in 1960 to further the revival campaign at the Philharmonic, where Mahler himself had presided as principal conductor during the last years of his life, from 1909 to 1911. Mahler’s widow, Alma, attended Bernstein’s Mahler rehearsals in New York and supposedly, at eighty, was still flirting with the conductor. “With works by Mahler I seem to be playing some of my own,” commented Bernstein, who was determined to divide his life rigorously, as Mahler had, between conducting and composition.

After those very productive youthful decades, however, his tenure at the Philharmonic in the 1960s yielded relatively little new work of his own, and the post-Philharmonic period in Bernstein’s life, the 1970s and 1980s, was littered with unfinished, unsuccessful, and implausible projects—an opera of Lolita with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Humbert Humbert, an opera about the Holocaust in collaboration with Woody Allen. These later years were fueled by what Jamie describes as “prodigious quantities of uppers, downers, and alcohol,” to say nothing of cigarettes. Mass, twenty years before his death, was already one of Bernstein’s last major statements as a composer.

When Mass had its premiere in 1971, J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI warned President Nixon to stay away from the opening of the Kennedy Center because the work was a protest against the Vietnam War. At the same time, the New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg, never a Bernstein fan, reported sardonically that its political message made Bernstein’s Mass “a very chic affair.” Schonberg regarded Mass as an expression of modish 1960s liberalism that provided ideological cover for mediocre music: “At times the Mass is little more than fashionable kitsch. It is a pseudo-serious effort at rethinking the Mass that basically is, I think, cheap and vulgar. It is a show-biz Mass, the work of a musician who desperately wants to be with it.”

Opponents of the war in Vietnam embraced Bernstein’s Mass, which included text recited from a draft resister’s letter, while the Celebrant sings out, “You can not imprison the word of the Lord.” The religious writer and ex-priest James Carroll recalls that Mass was received by young priests like himself as endorsing the antiwar position of the Berrigan brothers: “Those of us in the Berrigan wing of the Catholic left felt understood, affirmed, even celebrated by Bernstein—astounded, really, that he dared to so associate with us…. I owned the album, often used it in my own liturgies at BU, where I was Catholic Chaplain. It accompanied me through the rest of my priesthood.”

The LP double album of Mass sold an astonishing 200,000 copies, but Bernstein called Mass a “theatrical piece,” and recordings can hardly do it justice. Bernstein himself was always a theatrical event when he conducted an orchestra, a man in frenzied movement, leaping, swaying, thrusting, while his face evinced a range of expressions from agony to bliss. He exercised a striking sexual mystique from the podium, and was in some ways comparable to other erotic icons of the 1950s such as Marlon Brando (the star of On the Waterfront, for which Bernstein wrote the music in 1954). When contemplating a possible performance of Mahler’s incomplete Tenth Symphony, Bernstein asked: “Will it give me an orgasm?”

In 1980 Bernstein wrote hortatory lyrics for Jamie’s twenty-eighth birthday and set them to a recently composed waltz tune:

Shit-a-brick, time is running out on me;
I must get moving fast undoubtedly.
Suck-a-dick, I am sick in heart and soul,
Got to get moving fast to reach my goal.

It was obviously his song for himself at sixty-two, time running out as he embarked upon his final decade. There were spectacular moments in the 1980s for Bernstein as celebrant and conductor, combining music, politics, and spiritual commitment: the 1985 concert for nuclear disarmament at Hiroshima, the 1987 Carnegie Hall benefit “Concert for Life” in the middle of the AIDS epidemic (Tom Cothran was a victim), and the famous performance of Beethoven’s Ninth in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the year before Bernstein’s death.

Mass makes it possible to understand that Bernstein was fundamentally a religious composer, from the “Jeremiah” Symphony to the “Kaddish” Symphony (dedicated to JFK after the assassination), from the Hebrew settings of the Chichester Psalms to the Latin framework of Mass. The stunningly beautiful first orchestral “Meditation” of Mass, marked “Lento assai,” with its high violins and intense cellos, has moments that seem to allude to the spiritual longing of “There’s a Place for Us” from West Side Story. It’s interesting to recall that West Side Story was originally conceived (under the title East Side Story) as the tale of Jewish and Catholic star-crossed lovers during the season of Easter and Passover. West Side Story was supposed to be a Passion play. In Mass the “Mea Culpa” is set to a finger-snapping chorus that immediately recalls “When You’re a Jet.”

The Celebrant’s nervous breakdown on stage offers an extended mad scene that Ford sang with exceptional beauty at Lincoln Center. With guidance from the organ, he intones, “dirge-like,” a lyric that gave expression to Bernstein’s own deepest self-doubts in rising and falling phrases:

I feel every psalm that I’ve ever sung
Turn to wormwood, wormwood on my tongue.
And I wonder, Oh I wonder,
Was I ever really young?

Following the Celebrant’s collapse, the flautist from the orchestra steps forward and takes charge of the performance with a passage of birdsong, eventually calling forth the crystalline voice of the boy soprano on the other side of the stage, Tenzin Gund-Morrow at Lincoln Center, who takes up the simple song of praise that will conclude the mass. He joins hands with the Celebrant in “the touch of peace”—as specified in the score—though Bernstein himself is supposed to have favored a “holy kiss of peace.” Bernstein, who never converted, never changed his name, never tamed his larger-than-life persona, showed in Mass that he could engage rock and roll, the 1960s, the sexual revolution, the European cultural tradition, and even the Roman Catholic Church, on his own splendidly, subversively, outrageously all-embracing musical terms.