Thursday, April 27, 2006

Reappreciation?: Bernstein's Mass

I made a poor decision and slept during the early evening, which means that I will be awake for a while. Bored, I pulled my Sony recording of Bernstein's Mass off the shelf. Kent Nagano's recent, Grammy-nominated, recording pulled this odd score off the shelf of good-enough ideas. Perhaps it should have been left there.

I didn't make it past the 3rd track without being slightly annoyed. This work is better discussed as part of the progressive musical milieu of the 1970s than actually heard. One can tell exactly when it was written. Like Boulez' Pli selon pli and most of Philip Glass' stuff, works like these exist only within their context and their age. Bernstein's score, what of it seems to be actually engineered, is like an albatross - cumbersome and burdensome. The best music should explode and expand on its own. Listen to Bruckner's D-minor Mass if you don't believe me. Now, Bernstein probably shouldn't have written a Luftpause into "A simple song," but that doesn't mean that he should have tried as hard as he did.

The Kennedy Center is, to my mind, the centerpiece of the engineering of the human spirit that began with Rousseau and ended with the election of Ronald Reagan. Mass is the sort of piece that would fit nicely with the program of making people better through art. By rolling "deep" themes with "happening" music, one can see Lenny smirking at his desk. The kids are so going to get into Mahler with this stuff. It never happened. If Boulez and Stockhausen have written music that is all but inaccessible at best and unperformable at worst, then Bernstein wrote music that was all but useless. He wrote to amuse the enlightened, chic smart-set. This is avant-garde music for socialites with attention spans inversely proportional to their trust fund balances. This is Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic for musicians. Pope Paul VI would have come out of his depressed funk to swallow his tongue at stuff like this. Jean Cardinal Villot and Archbishop Annibale Bugnini would probably have reacted as poorly, though they were not liturgical conservatives by any stretch.

Is it worth it to listen to Mass? No. If you are religiously inclined, though you don't have to be the Roman Pontiff, you will be disgusted and offended. If you are musically inclined, you will be amused and inclined to dismiss it as the most excessive of 1970s Workers' Art.


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