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The Origin of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass”


Learn about why Leonard Bernstein wrote the musical and its world premiere at the Kennedy Center in 1971.


Marin Alsop: ''Mass' by Leonard Bernstein is one of the most avant-gardes, it's a piece filled with risk. It's a piece that challenges us. It's a piece that comes at us with arms wide open and also says I'm gonna make you think about the world you live in.'

JFK: 'We have a special responsibility to the arts, for art is the great Democrat, calling forth creative genius from every sector of society.

Disregarding race or religion or wealth or color.'

Alsop: 'When Bernstein was asked by JFK's widow, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, to write a piece for the opening of the Kennedy Center. He thought okay what is singular to JFK? And the fact that Kennedy was the only Roman Catholic president, came up into his mind and he said okay. I'm gonna use the mass, you know, the really the iconic representation of Catholicism, to hang all of these ideas on and use it as a structure, a framework, and a journey. So it's not really a mass per se but he uses all the sections of the mass. All the sort of implications of the offertory, the communion, the confession.

He uses all those in a way to tell his story.'

Alexander Bernstein: 'My father always, of course, has been a champion of social justice, of peace. He put all of that into 'Mass.' Also, he was a man of faith. He was very spiritual.'

Jamie Bernstein: 'It's about something complicated. It's about a crisis of faith, my father's crisis of faith, but also America's crisis of faith. And it was you know the early 1970s we were still very much in the turbulence of the 1960s.

And this is what the peace was born out of.'

Alsop: 'It was such a critical moment in the history of the United States particularly because of the situation in Vietnam, because of the transition to Civil rights and that whole movement.

It was a hot moment in our history.'

A. Bernstein: 'And the opening, of course, was nuts so much publicity and excitement.'

J. Bernstein: 'It's hard to convey how crazy the whole thing was.

It was the opening of the Kennedy Center and it was in Washington D.C. and all the dignitaries were there and then the government brass. And so the whole thing was already mega.

And you know, everybody was so gussied up, and the building was opening, and the piece was premiering.

It was all very uncomfortable.'


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