Celebrating 50 Years of Bernstein's MASS
September 8, 2021, marks the 50th anniversary of Bernstein’s landmark theatre piece, with upcoming international performances, television broadcasts, and a special edition recording planned to mark the occasion.
On September 8, 1971, Leonard Bernstein’s MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers was given its world premiere at the inauguration of the newly built John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. Five decades later, the work’s embrace of wide-ranging musical styles—from musical theater to folk and rock music—and socially conscious themes continue to resonate with audiences today.
The Kennedy Center marks the momentous occasion with a fully staged new production of MASS in September 2022, presented as the culminating event of its 50th Anniversary season. Directed by Francesca Zambello, the performance will feature 2020 Marian Anderson Award winner Will Liverman as the Celebrant with the National Symphony Orchestra.
Additional performances of MASS in 2022 include a concert of selections by the Orchester und Chor der Musikhochschule Dresden, led by John Axelrod (March 25-26); and a new epic staging of the work at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome (July 1-5), performed by Teatro dell’Opera di Roma Orchestra, Chorus, and Corps de Ballet.
Over the coming months, public television stations will schedule broadcasts of “Great Performances: LEONARD BERNSTEIN MASS,” the Ravinia Festival’s highly acclaimed 2019 production conducted by Marin Alsop and featuring Tony Award winner Paulo Szot as the Celebrant. PBS Passport is also making the program available online for free streaming from September 8 to October 6, 2021.
> Watch PBS’s five-minute mini documentary on MASS
On August 27, Sony Classical celebrates MASS’s half-century mark by releasing the remastered original recording of the work, conducted by Bernstein himself. In collaboration with the Leonard Bernstein Office, this remastered 2-CD plus hard cover book edition will include numerous photos and facsimiles, the full text, and new liner notes by music journalist Edward Seckerson.
> Pre-order the remastered original recording of MASS
Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center, Bernstein chose to base the work on the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass, to honor and memorialize the Center’s namesake, who was the nation’s first Roman Catholic president. Bernstein, with lyricist Stephen Schwartz, envisioned the piece as an exuberant, fully staged dramatic pageant. The work mixes sacred and secular texts, using the traditional Latin liturgical sequence as the framework, and inserting contemporary English lyrics that question and challenge the prescribed service. Bernstein’s score combines elements of musical theater, jazz, gospel, folk, and rock music, while also employing a rich symphonic palette that ranges from 12-tone serialism to subtle quotations from Beethoven’s Ninth.
The opening performance of MASS in the Opera House—directed by Gordon Davidson, conducted by Maurice Peress, and choreographed by Alvin Ailey—featured over 200 participants. In addition to the large pit orchestra, Bernstein’s work featured two choruses, a boys’ choir, a Broadway-flavored “Street Chorus,” Ailey’s dance company, a marching band, a rock band – and the work’s protagonist, the Celebrant.
The Vietnam War—as well as the shadow of the Holocaust, the Cold War era’s threat of nuclear annihilation, and the ongoing struggle for civil rights—were all very much on Bernstein’s mind as he composed MASS. The work expresses the composer’s deepest personal doubts about the institutions of government and religion, and questions his own spiritual beliefs—but ultimately serves, according to the composer in a 1971 program note, as a “reaffirmation of faith.”
The Nixon Administration had multiple reasons for being reluctant to celebrate the opening of the Kennedy Center. The President’s advisors eventually talked him out of attending the opening, telling him there was a “secret message” hidden in the Latin text, deliberately inserted to embarrass the President. The line was merely “Dona nobis pacem” (‘Grant us peace’), from the standard liturgical text.
> View the “MASS at 50” press kit
> Further information on Work: Mass (full version)