September 8, 2015

101 Reel-to-Reel Tapes 105: Leonard Bernstein ~ Mass

7½ ips Reel-to-Reel Tape spine detail
detail photo by Styrous®

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I started the Vinyl LP series because I have a collection of over 20,000 vinyl record albums I am selling; each blog entry is about an album from my collection. Inquire for information here.   

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Today is the anniversary of the premier of Mass, by Leonard Bernstein, which opened at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on September 8, 1971.   

7½ ips Reel-to-Reel Tape front cover 
tape cover photo by
photo of tape cover by Styrous®

As usual, there are songs from the work that are my favorite. The first time I heard the aria, A Simple Song, I was hooked! Sung by baritone Alan Titus, The Celebrant, it is among the most beautiful melodies ever written. Links to the music on YouTube at the end and link to Simple Song, so you can listen as you continue to read, is here.       

Then, there's the rollicking, wonderfully irreverent, God Said. Reminiscent of America from West Side Story but different and REALLY cool song (I will have to do a blog on the word, cool) and it IS "God-Damned Good"! You can also listen to God Said as you continue to read here.    

The Offertory: De Profundis, starts gently and very quietly with a female A-Capella chorus; then, like a thunderstorm, the melody erupts into a syncopated, jerky, bouncy and furious hora. It's fantastic! You can also listen to the Offertory: De Profundis, as you continue to read here.    

Agnus Dei is very Carmina Burana-like but as usual with Bernstein, it is has a very syncopated and jazzy feel to it. It's really a gem! Again, you can listen to the Agnus Dei, as you continue to read here.

The finale is astounding! It starts out so quietly you almost can't hear it with a hesitant, almost bird-like flute which is joined by a solo boy soprano. They are joined by the The Celebrant. A harp enters and the trio recaps the opening theme, A Simple Song. They twine and weave around each other and build until the orchestra comes in to join them for an almost 10 minute GRAND Finale that actually ends quietly and peacefully! It is sheer magic! The link to it on YouTube is at the bottom, so, you're stuck reading the rest of this if you want to hear it.     :-)  

7½ ips Reel-to-Reel Tape back cover 
photo by Styrous®

MASS was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. It was directed by Gordon Davidson with additional texts by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz, sets by Oliver Smith, costumes by Frank Thompson, and choreography by Alvin Ailey. It was conducted by Maurice Peress.

The work's cultural importance became intertwined with its political significance in Richard Nixon's Washington. The President did not attend the opening, but did send staff to rehearsals, who reported back that there were possibly "coded messages" in the Latin text! While the work is certainly anti-war and calls on "you people of power" to do what is right, it is not overtly political. It is unquestionably religious.   

Reel-to-Reel Tape back cover detail
detail photo by Styrous®

In MASS, Bernstein looks at the issue of faith dramatically and humorously; it is subtitled "A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers." Bernstein had always been intrigued and awed by the Roman Catholic Mass, finding it (in Latin) moving, mysterious, and eminently theatrical.

Originally, Bernstein intended to compose a traditional Mass, but instead decided on a more innovative form. The work is based on the Tridentine Mass of the Roman Catholic Church.  

The piece follows the liturgy exactly, but it is juxtaposed against frequent interruptions and commentaries by the Celebrant and the congregation, much like a running debate. There is stylistic juxtaposition as well, with the Latin text heard electronically through speakers or sung by the chorus, and the interruptions sung in various popular styles including blues and rock-and-roll. On the narrative level, the hour-and-a-half-long piece relates the drama of a Celebrant whose faith is simple and pure at first, but gradually becomes unsustainable under the weight of human misery, corruption, and the trappings of his own power.

MASS is an enormous piece. It calls for a large pit orchestra, two choruses plus a boy's choir, a Broadway-sized cast (with ballet company), marching band and a rock band. It may seem ironic that such multitudes are marshaled for a work that celebrates a man's "Simple Song": his love and faith in God. But in the end, that simplicity is shown to be all the more powerful because of it.

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The album was a two record set and the tape format was on 7½ ips tape so there are two reel-to-reel tapes in the boxed set. 

7½ ips Reel-to-Reel Tapes
photo by Styrous®


In the beginning all of the 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, the growing cacophony of the chorus' complaining finally interrupts the elevation of the Body and Blood (the consecrated bread and wine). The celebrant, in a furious rage, hurls the sacred bread, housed in an ornate cross-like monstrance, and the chalice of wine, smashing them on the floor. At this sacrilege the other cast members collapse to the ground as if dead while the Celebrant sings a solo. This solo blends the chorus's disbelief with his realization that he feels worn out and wonders where the strength of his original faith has gone. At the end of his song, he too collapses. A bird-like (Holy Spirit) flute solo begins, darting here and there from different speakers in the hall, finally "alighting" in a single clear note. An altar server, who was absent during the conflict, then sings a hymn of praise to God, "Sing God a Secret Song. This restores the faith of the three choirs, who join the altar server, one by one, in his hymn of praise. They tell the Celebrant "Pax tecum" (Peace be with you), and end with a hymn asking for God's blessing.   

7½ ips Reel-to-Reel Tape 1
photo by Styrous®

7½ ips Reel-to-Reel Tape 1
label detail
detail photo by Styrous®

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 SingersDownstage 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.

7½ ips Reel-to-Reel Tape 2
photo by Styrous®

7½ ips Reel-to-Reel Tape 2
label detail
detail photo by Styrous®


I. Devotions Before Mass 7:49
A1a 1. Antiphon: Kyrie Eleison
A1b 2. Hymn And Psalm: "A Simple Song"
A1c 3. Responsory: Alleluia

II. First Introit (Rondo) 5:52
A2a 1. Prefatory Prayers
A2b 2. Thrice - Triple Canon: Dominum Vobiscum

III. Second Introit 4:12
A3a 1. In Nomine Patris
A3b 2. Prayer For The Congregation (Chorale: "Almighty Father")
A3c 3. Epiphany

IV. Confession 9:30
A4a 1. Confiteor
A4b 2. Trope: "I Don't Know"
A4c 3. Trope: "Easy"

B1 V. Meditation #1 5:10

VI. Gloria 6:45
B2a 1. Gloria Tibi
B2b 2. Gloria In Excelsis
B2c 3. Trope: "Half Of The People"
B2d 4. Trope: "Thank You"
B3 VII. Meditation #2 3:56
B4 VIII. Epistle: "The Word Of The Lord" 5:56
B5 IX. Gospel-Sermon: "God Said" 5:00

X Credo 8:35
C1a 1. Credo In Unum Deum
C1b 2. Trope: "Non Credo"
C1c 3. Trope: "Hurry"
C1d 4. Trope: "World Without End"
C1e 5. Trope: "I Believe In God"
C2 XI. Meditation #3 (De Profundis, Part 1) 2:50
C3 XII. Offertory (De Profundis, Part 2) 3:00

XIII. The Lord's Prayer 4:22
C4a 1. "Our Father..."
C4b 2. Trope: "I Go On"
C5 XIV. Sanctus 5:15
C6 XV. Agnus Dei (Beginning) 1:45
D1 XV. Agnus Dei (Conclusion) 5:30
D2 XVI. Fraction: "Things Get Broken" 14:20
D3 XVII. Pax: Communion ("Secret Songs") 9:53


Net Links:
Leonard Bernstein website         
New York Times     

Leonard Bernstein ~ Mass on YouTube      
A Simple Song sung by Alan Titus
God Said sung by Alan Titus       
First Introit (Rondo) : 1. Prefatory Prayers
Offertory: De Profundis      
Agnus Dei   
God Said   

 The Leonard Bernstein, Mass, reel-to-reel tape is for sale on eBay   

"The Mass is ended; go in peace."
                  ~ Mass

Styrous® ~ Tuesday, September 8, 2015 

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