Leonard Bernstein's "MASS": An Introductory Guide for the Developing Conductor

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In June 1966, a year after “Chichester Psalms” premiered, Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis approached Leonard Bernstein with an invitation to write the piece that would open the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. Bernstein was still int he midst of his music directorship of the New York Philharmonic and fielding guest conducting invitations from the top orchestras of the world. Tasked with honoring an immensely popular fallen President whose Catholic faith was central to his identity while simultaneously celebrating the immeasurable complexity of the United States of America, Bernstein surely felt the weight of this monumental commission. “MASS” would become the largest, most personal, and most controversial composition of Bernstein’s career. Both loved and loathed, “MASS” is an important work in Bernstein’s compositional oeuvre and, indeed, the modern choral-orchestral and theatrical canons. It is also a highly complex piece of music and theater that presents extraordinary organizational and financial challenges to those who would produce it. These obstacles, in turn, create a stumbling block to student conductors who might consider studying it. My hope is that this paper offers these student conductors a tangible, pragmatic place to start their journey with one of the great artistic achievements of the late 20th century.