Leonard Bernstein Mass


Leonard Bernstein: MASS – GloriaTibi – John Cashmore as Celebrant
Germany 2009

I had a friend recently remind me of the Bernstein Mass so I’ve been listening to it. There are many more clips on YouTube of the different movements. Here is more information on the instrumentation, movements and performance:

MASS (formally, “MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers”) is a musical theatre work composed by Leonard Bernstein. Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy, it premiered on September 8, 1971, conducted by Maurice Peress. The performance was part of the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Mass premiered in Europe in 1973, with John Mauceri conducting the Yale Symphony Orchestra in Vienna.

Originally, Bernstein had intended to compose a traditional Requiem Mass, but instead decided on a more innovative form.[citation needed] The work is based on the Tridentine Mass of the Roman Catholic Church. Although the liturgical passages are sung in Latin, Mass also includes additional texts in English written by Bernstein, Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz, and Paul Simon (who wrote the first quatrain of the trope “Half of the People”). The work is intended to be staged theatrically, but it has also been performed in a standard concert setting.

Initial critical reception, including a review in the New York Times, was largely negative, but the Columbia Records recording of the work enjoyed excellent sales.
Cast of characters

The original cast consisted of a Celebrant, three choirs, and altar servers. A full classical orchestra performed in the pit, while onstage musicians — including a rock band and a marching band — performed and interacted onstage.

  • The Celebrant – The central character of the work, a Catholic priest who conducts the celebration of the Mass.
  • Formal Choir – A mixed choir (SSAATTBB) in upstage choir lofts who sing the Latin portions of the Mass.
  • Boys Choir – A children’s choir (SSAA) that processes on and off stage various times, performing alone, in antiphon, or in concert with the Formal Choir and the Street Singers.
  • Street Singers – Downstage and often performing around the Celebrant and the stage instrumentalists, a broad group of female and male singers representing the congregation (and occasionally the musicians), who variously participate in the prayers of the Mass, or alternately counter those prayers in a modern context.
  • Acolytes – Assistants to the Celebrant, who perform dances and altar assistance throughout the Mass.


At the beginning of the score, all performers are in harmony and agreement. During the course of the Mass, however, the street choir begins expressing doubts and suspicions about the necessity of God in their lives and the role of the Mass itself. At the play’s emotional climax, during the anti-war statements of Dona nobis pacem (“Give us peace”), this doubt and confusion spreads to the Celebrant himself, who breaks the cross and hurls the just-consecrated bread and wine to the ground in an act of sacrilege. The other cast members collapse to the ground as if dead while the Celebrant sings a song calling his lifetime of faith and beliefs into question. At the end of his song, he too, collapses.

The plot is resolved when the altar server, who was absent from the stage during the increasing tension of the various players, sings a hymn of praise to God and restores the faith of the Celebrant and the three choirs, who then join the altar server, one by one, in his hymn of praise, universal peace and love.

As in the actual Mass, the last words of the piece are: “The Mass is ended; go in peace.” In Bernstein’s play these words are heard over pre-recorded tape.


Antiphon: Kyrie Eleison
Hymn and Psalm: “A Simple Song”
Responsory: Alleluia
Prefatory Prayers (Kyrie Rondo)
Thrice-Triple Canon: Dominus vobiscum
In nomine Patris
Prayer for the Congregation (Chorale: “Almighty Father”)
Trope: “I Don’t Know”
Trope: “Easy”
Meditation no. 1
Gloria tibi
Gloria in excelsis Deo
Trope: “Half of the People”
Trope: “Thank You”
Meditation no. 2
Epistle: “The Word of the Lord”
Gospel-Sermon: “God Said”
Trope: “Non Credo”
Trope: “Hurry”
Trope: “World Without End”
Trope: “I Believe in God”
Meditation no. 3: De profundis, part 1
Offertory: De profundis, part 2
The Lord’s Prayer, Our Father
Trope: “I Go On”
Agnus Dei
Fraction: “Things Get Broken”
Pax: Communion (“Secret Songs”)


Vocal forces: Celebrant (high baritone), Boy soprano, SATB robed choir (ca. 60), Boys Choir (ca. 20), Street People (singer-dancers, ca. 45), 20 soloists from Street People.
Stage orchestra (in costume, acting as cast members): 2 flutes (both doubling on piccolos), two oboes (second doubling on English horn), three clarinets (doubling on soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, E-flat clarinet, and bass clarinet), two bassoons (second doubling on contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, 2 percussionists (playing bongos, 2 drum sets, finger cymbals, temple blocks, 2 tambourines, and glockenspiel), street percussion (3 steel drums, claves, bottles, tambourine, gourds, and tin cans), 2 electric guitars (one doubling on banjo), electric bass guitar, and 2 electric keyboards

Pit orchestra: timpani, 3-4 percussionists (playing snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, bongos, 4 tuned drums, cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle, 2 cowbells, chimes, tam-tam, anvil, temple blocks, woodblock, tambourine, xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba, and vibraphone), harp, celesta, 2 Allen organs, pre-recorded tape, and strings


1971: Alan Titus (Celebrant), Norman Scribner Choir, Berkshire Boy Choir, Studio Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein (Conductor) – Sony Classical
2004: Jerry Hadley (Celebrant), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Berlin Cathedral Chorus, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Kent Nagano (Conductor) – Harmonia Mundi
2008: Randall Scarlata (Celebrant), Tölzer Knabenchor, Chorus Sine Nomine, Tonkünstler-Orchester, Kristjan Järvi (Conductor) – Chandos
2009: Jubilant Sykes (Celebrant), Morgan State University Choir, Peabody Children’s Chorus, Morgan State University Marching Band, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop (Conductor) – Naxos

FBI warning

The FBI kept a file on Bernstein because of his leftist views. In the summer of 1971, the Bureau warned the White House that the Latin text of the mass might contain anti-war messages, which could cause embarrassment to President Nixon should he attend the premiere and applaud politely. Rumors of such a plot by Bernstein were leaked to the press. According to Gordon Liddy, White House counsel John Dean stated that the work was “definitely anti-war and anti-establishment, etc.” Nixon did not attend the premiere; in the press he had this described as an act of courtesy to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, because he felt the formal opening “should really be her night”

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