A TALK BEFORE "MASS"
By Jamie Bernstein
From his earliest conflicts with his father, Leonard Bernstein was already establishing a template for a lifetime of wrestling with his creator, of confronting authority. Over and over again, he turned to his father's beloved Hebrew biblical texts for both inspiration and disputation. These texts appear in so many pieces over my father’s lifetime that taken together with the music, they document a lifelong, heated dialogue with God. MASS is a particularly impassioned chapter of the argument.
One of my father’s favorite ways to express conflict was to pit tonality against atonality. We tend to forget nowadays what an urgent crisis composers faced in the mid-20th Century. A composer who wished to be taken seriously by the academic musical community back then absolutely positively had to forfeit tonality in favor of the 12-tone vocabulary – that is, no key and no melody. There was no middle ground; either you wrote 12-tone music or you weren’t a “serious” composer. My father longed to be included in the academic musical pantheon, but he could not quite bring himself to stop writing a tune. At the time, it cost him his very reputation to stick to tonality – but aren’t we glad now?! And in the long run, I daresay that Leonard Bernstein’s fondness for melody has not marred his reputation.