Mass Appeal

by Barry Drogin

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When I was quite young, I was commissioned to compose a full-length ballet, "Butterfly Dream." The original commission was for 16-piece orchestra, with a major portion of the second act for solo piano (probably my choice). The piece was to be recorded, with the possibility of the use of live orchestra. It may have been the first rehearsal - or maybe even the first recording session - when the choreographer/prima ballerina noticed that there was no percussion. I don't know why I chose not to use percussion - the piano itself, of course, can be considered percussion, and I may have been uncomfortable with composing for percussion, as I had no experience. I believe I used the excuse that my contract was for 16-piece orchestra - that was amended to 17-piece orchestra and, after the entire piece had already been composed and orchestrated, I added percussion - tympani, snare, triangle, and so on. I don't know how long it took to compose the percussion part, but I know that at least some of the percussion parts were recorded as a separate track and then mixed with the pre-recorded original orchestration.

A few years later, I wrote a one-act "opera" for child soprano, operatic bass, and theater alto and baritone, "orchestrated" for grand piano (the opening measures include some effects that can only be achieved on a piano, and I simply don't like the sound of an upright).

Recently, I was reading some material about Kurt Weill. He would tell Broadway producers that they should hire him to compose music because they got three-for-the-price of one - composer, arranger, orchestrator. His famous "Die Dreigroschenoper," which opened in 1928, had amassed over 10,000 performances by 1933 (way before the 1954 revival, in Marc Blitzstein's translation, racked up over 2,700 performances, running until 1961). Unlike Marc Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock" - which never seems to have been performed or recorded in its original orchestration - "Die Dreigroschenoper" is always performed in its original orchestration - for 7 players, with only 3 playing a single instrument, the others handling 20 instruments (some use 11 or 13 players). "The Eternal Road" is that rarety, an extremely popular Weill piece that had to cease performances because the producers were simply losing too much money at every sold-out performance. The work has only been revived once for many, many obvious reasons, including its original 6-hour length, its massive forces, and the fact that there is nothing, musically, in the piece that adds to a listener's knowledge of the Weill ouvre. Still, it is a shame that there isn't a complete recording available - yet.

This may seem like a piece about orchestration, or about performability, but I intend it to be about much more. Recently, I wrote a piece about "Hamilton," with some related comments about "The Last Five Years." A major point I make about both pieces is that, although both have been originally produced for the Broadway stage, "Hamilton" may better be considered (and staged) as an oratorio, and "The Last Five Years" as a song cycle (for two singers). The former will eventually be leased for elementary school productions, where its choreography (and orchestration) will obviously be sharply curtailed, if not eliminated, and the latter has already successfully been performed without sets or staging.

Since then, I have seen an Encores! production of "Songs for a New World," originally an Off-Broadway work, performed, with dancers, at the gigantic City Center theater, and a Mostly Mozart Festival production of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" at Lincoln Center. Songs from the former, which are all little one-act plays, are often performed by cabaret artists (although, undoubtedly, not with the original orchestration), and "Mass" has been performed in England with no sets, costumes, or choreography. Some of the orchestral "Meditations" from "Mass" have been performed by orchestras, but the songs don't work as stand-alone pieces, and the choruses don't seem to have spread yet to the choral market. As part of the Bernstein centennial year, I have heard other Bernstein works in reduced orchestrations by others, including "Songfest," "Halil," and, of course, "The Chichester Psalms."

Bernstein's chamber repertoire is not non-existent, but it isn't prominent. Since Bernstein had no need to make a living off of performance royalties of his classical music, he indulged himself in composing pieces which benefit from a full orchestral sound. It is unfortunate, because his command of counterpoint, within the context of his musical language, was, frankly, limited. "Mass," like many of his works, has several canons. Had he stuck with string quartets instead of tunes, he might have developed a better way to sustain the use of melody, harmony, and rhythm that were in his voice but suitable for longer works.

Although "Mass" is starting to stir a revival of interest and critical acclaim, it has problems embedded in its very title: "A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers." When the "Meditations" are performed by orchestras, they are not part of "a theater piece" (although they do follow Bernstein's dictum that all of his music is, in some way, theatrical). Similarly, if the choral portions are ever extracted into a more typical "Mass" that can be performed by choruses, the presentation will not be as "a theater piece." And I have already stated that "Mass" has been performed without dancers.

If, like me and many others (including Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times), you love and have been influenced by Bernstein's "Mass," it is not from having witnessed a live performance, because they are so rare - it is from a recording. I find it striking (and surprising) that, in Berstein's original recording, a libretto, with full translations of all of the Greek and Latin texts, is included, whereas in the Marin Alsop recording (which Tommasini prefers), no translation is offered. In the Lincoln Center performance I saw, surtitles were used. Sometimes they were distracting, and sometimes they disagreed with the words sung (Stephen Schwartz, who had only four months to provide English lyrics for "Mass," realized he had an opportunity ("since I'm not dead," he told an audience prior to the performance I saw) to write alternative verses which directors and performers can choose between), but when Latin or Greek was sung, translations were used, and they were enormously useful - I never realized that Bernstein chose to place most of the explicitly Christian content into the non-English texts.

In the choral world, translations are often printed in audience programs, or choruses sing translations. That listeners can love the melodies, the harmonies, the rhythms, the orchestrations, and pay no attention to the meanings of the words, is astounding and almost unheard of in a theater piece. Choruses and their conductors always spend some time considering the meanings of the words they are singing.

If I may be allowed a diversion, I am struck by how Bernstein's "Mass" has affected my own compositional choices. My compositional stance as a Neo-Melodist was definitely provoked by Bernstein - what I never realized was how the "Things Get Broken" so-called "Fraction" is almost an early example of my own compositional style. Similarly, my "Shema" is a commentary on the difference between audience comprehension of texts sung in a foreign language and texts sung in an audience's native tongue. "Typhoid Mary" explicitly uses German text with the understanding that the audience will not (and should not) understand the words (a German-speaking collaborator found the performance disturbing). Bernstein and I also had a habit of re-using music written for one context and with one set of words for a different context and with different words. The opening melody of "Love and Idols" has now gotten its third text. Perhaps the question - Is this an appropriate setting of the text by Bernstein? - can become questionable when the critic knows that the music was originally used differently. (Bernstein's first Young People's Concert, "What Does Music Mean?," chooses to refute that even the most dramatic music - just short of Mickey Mousing - can be used to mean completely different things, a notion that Stravinsky swore by (and demonstrated often).) But in musical theater, every song has a chorus and several verses - the verses being different words set to the same melody and accompaniment. How can a theater composer, accustomed to this practice, believe that words and music are married to each other?

My impressions of "Mass" are complex. It deserves performance editions that extract music for chorus, not just for orchestra. Its movements deserve to be compared to Mass settings by other composers. No one - well, maybe Stravinsky - sets the Mass without some religious devotion to the meanings of the words. In the Gloria trope "Thank You," is Bernstein speaking for himself, or just for his anti-religion audience, when the soprano sings, "I don't sing Gloria/I don't sing Gratius Deo/I can't say quite when it happened/But gone is the.../...thank you..."?

"Mass" may not be a theater piece, and maybe never should have been called one, but it is a deeply moving, heart-felt consideration of theology, theism, community, and music's place and role in religion then and today. If we love "West Side Story" not only for its Jerome Robbins' choreography but for its melodies, harmonies, lyrics, emotional resonance, then it is clear that "Mass" - and many other pieces by Leonard Bernstein - deserve to be treasured as recordings, and in performances, some of which may alter the musical forces that Bernstein originally conceived them for. Certainly the audience at Lincoln Center were enamored to hear the piece live, and my experience of the piece live was revelatory. My son - who had never heard the piece and didn't know what to expect (how do you describe it?) - enjoyed it, too, so there are new audiences for these works, not just the old folks like me who crammed the Wall-to-Wall Bernstein at Symphony Space.

Similarly, there are other pieces - by Lin-Manuel Miranda, by Jason Robert Brown, by Kurt Weill - that deserve to be reconceived. We don't watch Shakespeare or listen to Mozart the way the original audiences did, the way "the creator" originally intended. The first time I performed "Alamo!", I did it exactly the way I intended. I was completely wrong, and subsequent performances got better, in various site-specific ways. Perhaps it is my aesthetic that considers the act of musicking, the notion that a playscript is what is left behind after an act of theater has occurred, the idea that words and notes and rhythms and tempi and stagings and orchestrations and EVERYTHING can be changed, so that a performance can occur, and a valid aesthetic experience be had. I just hope we don't have to wait for everything to lapse into the public domain for it to happen.

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Last Updated: July 29, 2018