Composers Datebook®

with host John Birge

Sunday, September 8

Bernstein's "Mass"

Synopsis

On today’s date in 1971, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., was inaugurated with a gala performance of a new work by Leonard Bernstein. Entitled “Mass,” this was a musical and visual extravaganza which reinterpreted the text of the Latin liturgy and involved more than 200 singers, dancers, and instrumentalists.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had asked Bernstein to write a piece to open the new Center but was conspicuous by her absence. President Richard Nixon also chose to stay away, rightly fearing that Bernstein’s “Mass” would be interpreted as an embarrassing protest against the war in Vietnam.

The Washington Post’s front-page review, titled “A Reaffirmation of Faith,” was glowing in its praise, but Time magazine’s assessment was condescending, quoting some New York wits who dubbed it the “Mitzvah Solemnis.” The New York Times review was brutal, calling Bernstein’s Mass “a combination of superficiality and pretentiousness . . . [and] the greatest mélange of styles since the ladies’ magazine recipe for steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce.”

But Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, when she finally did hear Bernstein’s work, sent the composer an inscribed photograph which read: “Lenny – I loved it, yes, I did, and I love you, too. Thank you for making ‘Mass’ so beautiful.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) Sanctus, from Mass Empire Brass Telarc 80159

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) Simple Song, from Mass Boston Pops; John Williams, cond. Philips 416 360

Additional Information

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