Thursday, May 6, 2010

At the MASS

Almighty Father, 2010

Some years back PBS did a wonderful series about the history of Christianity that included a segment on writer C.S. Lewis. Lewis, as you may recall, was part of the literary community at Oxford University during the first half of the Twentieth Century. His most famous works, though, The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia, were written after Lewis underwent a profound change in thinking at age thirty-two that involved embracing Christianity.

The story of Lewis’ struggle with faith touched me because it echoes my own. Lewis was brought up in the church and then rejected it. He saw that people who had a strong Christian faith tended to be somewhat happier, though, and confident that some larger hand was guiding their life and watching over them. But the logical side of his mind said that there was just too little evidence or reason to support this belief.

After long study, Lewis concluded that you either reject the whole lot of Christianity or else embrace it fully, cognizant and accepting of its inconsistencies and contradictions. It was that simple. After years of deliberation, Lewis chose to accept it.

I haven’t joined Lewis in that acceptance. But having grown up in a house of sacred music singers, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that sacred music moves me to be a more thoughtful person, even if that thought isn’t necessarily focused in any heavenly direction. I think what gets me about sacred music is that its intended to be a shared experience, and one that only gains power the more people there are involved in sharing the moment.

I was thinking about Lewis’ struggle recently as I listened to a recording of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington in 1971. It’s follows the structure and text of the Catholic Mass, but includes additional text from Bernstein, Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz and even Paul Simon. In keeping with the rebellion sweeping the nation at the time over the Vietnam War, Mass was intended to be a respectful, but nonetheless jarringly contemporary interpretation of religious ritual much in the way that the “tribal love-rock musical” Hair had recently challenged the traditions of Broadway.

Many critics didn't like Mass. They scoffed at the sometimes discordant mashup of rock music and traditional liturgy. They poked fun at the irony of three Jews taking on Christian musical ritual. But Bernstein fans and others, including many church leaders, applauded Mass, and it continues to be a popular, if ambitious performance piece for symphonies and choirs.

Mass is a soaring piece, almost two hours long and full of familiar Bernstein motifs, dissonance and chaos. There are moments of quiet simplicity and passages of transfixing grandiosity. It’s a magnificent shared experience and a huge production. Performance requires a full orchestra, rock musicians, a marching band and even kazoos. And that’s just the musical accompaniment. A large adult choir, a children’s choir and a whole host of soloists and other supporting singers are also called for. You can hear a little more of Mass, and also conductor Marin Alsop describing it better than I have here.

The First Introit in Mass, the prayer Almighty God, used above with some of my photographs of places of worship, is one of the quieter moments from Mass. It’s first sung early in Mass and then again at the very end to close it. I don’t think you have to be a religious person or even a very spiritual one to be swallowed into its harmonies.

If Mass catches your ear, you’ll want to check out this terrific Naxos recording performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Marin Alsop, with soloists Jubilant Sykes, Asher Edward Wulfman, the Morgan State University Choir, the Peabody Children’s Chorus and others. You can order it there. It's also available at iTunes.

[Interesting fact: C.S. Lewis’ death went unnoticed by many because it occurred on the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.]


  1. I didn't realize Lewis died that day! Wow.

    I've always been a big Bernstein fan--he was so dramatic and charismatic. I just get caught up in his passion for music--loved watching him conduct. I've never heard the whole thing, but I have heard some of his Mass. Much to my parents' chagrin, I'm a totally lapsed Catholic, but even today, I do like some of the old, Latin High mass music.

  2. I tried to leave a comment but it doesn't seem to have "taken." I always loved Bernstein--he was such a dramatic, charismatic conductor, and I used to love to hear him talk about music--he had such passion about it.

    Much to my parents' chagrin, I'm a very lapsed Catholic, but I did always like the Latin High masses with choruses--some of the music was really beautiful.

  3. Lewis's book, Mere Christianity, was the first intellectual book I ever read on Christianity. It, above everything, allowed me to consider that one could bring their brain along for the ride, as opposed to just blind faith. I choose to believe that God is still revealing him/her/itself today, and that as we grow in understanding of the natural world, we can use the biblical text as metaphor for God's intent rather than for literal truth. Music is also such a vehicle for meaning. It bypasses our rational roadblocks and pierces the part of our consciousness where words are not needed or even possible.

    Thanks for sharing.