It is a bit of an odd piece: a theater piece based on the Roman Catholic Mass written by one of the nation's leading Jewish composers of classical music. It was composed for the September 8, 1971 opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. and dedicated "To the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy" at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
It was written at a time when the nation and the Roman Catholic church were in turmoil over its values and beliefs, before the religious currents of American life that have defined the last few decades had taken hold. Evangelical Christianity hadn't assumed national prominence in American politics. Gay rights was not yet on the radar screen. The use of jazz and rock musical genres in the work preceded its widespread use in mainline Christian and Catholic religious music. It is roughly contemporary with the composition of the Chicago Folk Service and precedes the charismatic movement's penetration beyond Pentecostal and black churches.
It addresses important themes that got sidelined in latter debates in the United States about the role of religion in our life. Bernstein's Mass, at its heart, is about a crisis of faith and belief. It addressed most centrally the issue that had already started to become dominant in Europe, the erosion of faith by secularism.
The most famous lyric in the piece is a contribution from Paul Simon:
Half 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.
It is also a profoundly personal, rather than political work, although its dona nobis pacem was political in the context of the brewing anti-Vietnam War movement afoot during the Nixon Presidency as it premiered. It talks about what faith means to real ordinary people in their daily lives. It talks about the conflicts of guilt over one's own sin and licentiousness fostered by the possibility of forgiveness. It acknowledges that even the clergy face struggles of belief. It strips away complex church doctrine to reveal a vision of faith as something simple, profound and natural, part of our humanity, with its central theme song:
Sing God a Simple Song . . . Make it up as you go along . . . Sing like you like to sing, God loves all simple things, for God is the simplest of all.
As much with its musical choices as its libretto, it creates a cultural space in which someone can be both religiously faithful and deeply manly, so rare in the context of religious ideals that are either neutering (e.g. in the case of a celebate clergy) or a feminizing force that is at odds with a masculine archetype.
It conjures up a vision of faith that can be pious without being arrogant, that cares about the lives of the little people, that acknowledges a people adrift, that focuses on what is important in people's spiritual and emotional lives both melancholy and joyous, both fearful and glavanized to action. It describes a faith that is about helping people to get on with their lives, rather than one focused on creating a City of God. It is a last hurrah of a humanistic mainline way of looking at Christian faith that has greatly diminished in adherents and vitality in the decades that followed. It offered up a vision of what believers could be that no one took up the flag to advance.
I don't know if I'll be able to attend, but the tickets aren't expensive and it is a remarkable work of music that makes you think in a way that transcends the boundaries of today's often stale and impersonal debate about the role of faith in our lives.