Bernstein’s Mass

For my church choir’s annual Christmas concert two weeks ago, one of the solos was a piece from Bernstein’s Mass, titled “Hymn and Psalm: A Simple Song.”  It’s a very modern sounding song, not at all like traditional requiem masses.  At times, it was very dissonant and haunting, other times similar to big band Broadway.  Nevertheless, Lenny wrote a mass.  And I can’t get it out of my head.

Give this a little listen…

This rendition of Simple Song is most similar to the version sung at our concert (although the soloist seems to be a half beat behind the orchestra the whole time, in my humble amateur opinion).

There are many eccentricities of Bernstein’s Mass, the most immediate of which is that Bernstein was Jewish.  His heritage notwithstanding, Bernstein held a long-time fascination with the Catholic liturgy 1.  This interesting synthesis of faiths yields a new layer of interpretation:

…Despite all the secular elements, the lasting impression is profoundly religious, exalting the joy, probing the challenges and ultimately hallowing the timeless comfort and peace of pure and sincere faith 2.

Bernstein attempted to universalize the Catholic ritual in order to explore the spiritual crisis of our time. All the sections of the traditional ritual are there, but interspersed with decidedly non-traditional observations and challenges. While arguing with God is an accepted part of Jewish theology… many Catholics were shocked at applying such rhetoric to the immutable truth and order of their mass.

Throughout the next 80 minutes, segments of the ensemble careen through a phenomenal profusion of music and moods – marches, meditations, opera arias, Broadway songs, blues, hymns, narration, scat, Hebrew prayers, gospel, folk, rounds, electronic dissonance and even a kazoo chorus. While all of this sounds like an unholy mess on paper, everything flows together miraculously, unified and vitalized by Bernstein’s overwhelming humanism and staggering creativity.

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

In Simple Song, there’s a curious subtext at work. It’s clearly a blend of styles. Bernstein himself represents a blend of artist, being of a different faith yet participating in another by writing his Mass. The juxtaposition calls to mind the agnostic John Rutter and his mighty Requiem 3

This blend of styles and talent suggest a blend of being. Bernstein’s Mass isn’t rigidly confined to the strictures of the Latin mass or even the recent more inclusive mass of Vatican II. His is a modern incarnation, contributing its own secular insights to a classical tradition of faith in God.

Bernstein’s Mass is a humanitarian effort. It’s perspective is more grounded within the human condition of fear, doubt, and struggle as they relate to the Higher Being of God through elation, praise, and prayer.

Extra-curricular Reading:


  1. so says Wiki
  2. from inkpot article
  3. Rudder, having stated that he “was not particularly a religious man, but… inspired by the spirituality of sacred verses and prayers.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.