Leonard Bernstein's Mass, a "theater piece for singers, players and dancers," was commissioned to open the new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., on September 8, 1971. On February 16, 1981, Bernstein's Mass became the first work by an American-born composer performed at the Vienna State Opera.
The text of Mass consists of the Roman Catholic mass with additional material written by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz, who wrote Godspell. Pit forces include strings, percussion, and organ, while on the stage are a blues combo and rock band with a "Street Chorus." Bernstein wanted to appeal to young people, and his inclusion of rock and blues elements and the abundance of young performers on stage in Mass were certainly influenced by the recent successes of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, as well as Schwartz's own Godspell. The composer described Mass as "an entirely new concept. It has all the qualities of a dramatic work, catastrophe and climax...all those terms out of Aristotle." Bernstein's amalgam of church chorales, show-tune melodies, folk song, rock, and blues, requiring over 200 performers, irritated some critics and pleased others.
"Eclectic" hardly describes the assemblage of styles and idioms in Bernstein's Mass. After a four voice Kyrie, the Celebrant -- the main character of the drama -- enters and accompanies himself on the electric guitar as he sings "A Simple Song," a hymn-like piece praising God. A psalm, "I Will Sing to the Lord a New Song," follows. Pre-recorded music plays a large part in the work, particularly a six-part "Alleluia" during which dancing acolytes dress the denim-clad Celebrant in ceremonial robes. Shortly afterward, a brass band enters the floodlight-filled auditorium, marching through the audience and performing music from Bernstein's abandoned musical, The Skin of Our Teeth. The Street Chorus joins the band, as do a boys' chorus and mixed chorus. Among the 31 numbers in Mass are rock and blues solos and a gospel-style, revivalist segment for the Preacher. As the piece progresses, Bernstein and Schwartz confront such topics as the role of religion in the face of violence, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the persecution of the pacifist Berrigan brothers.
As the piece approaches the celebration of the Eucharist (the high point of the Catholic mass), acolytes adorn the Celebrant with increasingly elaborate robes and other vestments, superficially symbolizing his duties and creating a chasm between him and the congregation. Eventually the Celebrant goes mad, smashes the Communion vessels, and interrupts the mass. After this, as Bernstein notes, "It then remains for each individual on the stage to find a new seed of faith within himself through painful Meditation." Once it is found, the participants pass peace to one another and into the audience, "and hopefully into the world outside." The piece closes with a recording of the composer's voice, speaking, "The mass is ended. Go in peace," the traditional closing of the Catholic mass.