The classical music world is fond of celebratory anniversaries. And with 2018 the 100th anniversary of famed American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth, there’s certainly no shortage of Bernstein programming.
But beyond all the centenary falderol, Bernstein’s work emerges as particularly relevant in the poltically-charged here and now of 2018.
At first glance, Bernstein had a very traditional (albeit extraordinary) classical music career. He worked his way up to the top of the field while studying with some of the great musical minds of the time, including Aaron Copland and Serge Koussevitsky. But what set Bernstein apart from many of his contemporaries and solidified his place as an American cultural icon was his willingness to take on political issues in his words and in his music that pushed the envelope of what was socially acceptable.
As a protégé of the socialist-leaning Copland, young Lenny found himself spending time with New York City’s left-wing academics and artists while he worked toward his undergraduate degree at Harvard. His political views were shaped by those of his associates, and in his senior thesis in 1937, he advocated for a new American musical idiom influenced by jazz, Protestant hymns, and folk music that would be accessible and comprehensible to the working public. Even before his career was established, he was afraid to challenge the status quo by bringing his political views into his work.
Bernstein’s focus on the everyman wasn’t limited to his musical approach, however. In the following decade, he became more politically involved, conducting performances at fundraisers for left-wing organizations, participating in marches and rallies, signing petitions, and even helping to form the Progressive Party, which called for a reestablishment of the WWII-era U.S.-Soviet alliance. Though he was never officially affiliated with the Communist Party, it wasn’t too long before his political activity got him in trouble. Bernstein fell victim to the Red Scare that swept the United States in the 1950s and was blacklisted by the State Department. This designation prevented him from participating in cultural exchange programs abroad and ultimately led to his self-imposed exile in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Ostensibly, he wanted the time away from conducting to dedicate himself to unfinished composition projects like “Trouble in Tahiti,” but he ended up staying away from the New York music scene until late 1956 when he was finally removed from the blacklists as they fell out of style.
How did all of this political drama play out in his music? A prime window into the mind of Bernstein is “Mass,” his controversial reimagining of the Roman Catholic liturgy that interspersed secular texts with the traditional Latin. It was the result of a commission from his friend Jackie Kennedy to compose a large-scale work for the dedication of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971.
The commission came at the height of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. While Bernstein was working on “Mass,” he publicly endorsed the Civil Rights Movement (joining other celebrities and public figures on the final leg of the march from Selma to Montgomery and hosting a Black Panthers fundraiser in his Upper East Side apartment, among other things) and became a strong critic of the Vietnam War.
In an interview with arts critic John Gruen in 1967, Bernstein said, “The world is on the verge of collapse; it’s worse than ever, because of the multiplying nuclear arsenals and the total unpredictability of statesmen who are hardly statesman-like.” He was becoming increasingly frustrated with current events and feuding world leaders. And Bernstein’s words eerily echo today.
“Mass” features a Celebrant who leads the rite in conversation with a chorus of discontented Street People. This congregation’s complaints and demands lead to the Celebrant’s own disillusionment; he goes through an intense moment of introspection and a questioning of his spiritual identity before ultimately returning to a place of peace.
On the surface, “Mass” challenges the relevance of religion to a changing and unjust world, but it also echoes the deep feelings of turmoil that were present in Bernstein’s mind and society at large when it was written. Perhaps his frustrations led Bernstein to lean into the broad and eclectic scope of American music when he scored “Mass” calling for a lead soloist, a group of approximately 20 other soloists, a robed choir, a boys choir, dancers, a stage orchestra (in costume), a rock band, and a pit orchestra, plus pre-recorded electronics. The music invokes Broadway, opera, the blues, and rock ballads. It was a fittingly spectacular way to christen a national center for the performing arts, and the audience at the premiere in 1971 erupted in rapturous applause at its over-the-top drama.
Bernstein’s willingness to confront the issues of the cultural moment and explore the strong emotions that came with them make his compositions universally understandable and approachable. His music wrestled with the things that were on everyone’s mind, helping his audiences to pause and reflect on their individual moments of crisis. His body of work truly is a music for the everyman, and its powerful accessibility is why Bernstein will remain relevant far beyond his 100th year.