A flawed, beautiful 20th century masterpiece
Is there a more beautiful 20th century chorale than “Almighty Father”, the hushed invocation from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass? If so, I struggle to bring one to mind.
Almighty Father, incline thine ear
Bless us, and all those who have gathered here
Thine angel send us,
who shall defend us all.
And fill with grace,
All who dwell in this place.
Leonard Bernstein is my favourite composer. Several of his compositions make my Top 50 list – Serenade for Violin and Strings in particular, but also Chichester Psalms and Symphony no. 2, The Age of Anxiety – and while other pieces of music by other composers often get more of a hearing on my iPhone, it is my contention that these Bernstein compositions contain some of the most beautiful (and profoundly human) music ever written.
This is certainly the case with Mass. As to whether Bernstein’s dramatic staged reworking of the Latin Mass works as a cohesive whole, my answer probably varies day by day and according to my mood. Mass is certainly transcendent, flawed, beautiful, stark, cheesy, smug, original in places, derivative in others and often achingly rooted in 1970s style.
The orchestral meditations, interspersed throughout the piece, have a uniquely haunting beauty of their own – particularly the first meditation, whose desolate questioning in the ethereal violin phrase followed by the slowly-building crisis and final, soothing, repeated falling notes on the organ are about as close to a religious experience as music has yet taken me.
A rather mediocre recording of the first meditation is here:
The complete recording of a recent (2012) performance of Mass at the BBC Proms is below: