Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, or How I Beat Back the Beast: A Personal Essay

Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, or How I Beat Back the Beast: A Personal Essay

[Ed Note: This month, as part of international celebrations of the 90th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birthday, the composer’s still controversial 1971 Mass—originally commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of Washington DC’s Kennedy Center—will be revived in a series of performances by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra led by Marin Alsop in Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Hall (October 16-18, 2008) and in New York City, both at Carnegie Hall (on October 24) and at the United Palace Theater (on October 25). It will also be performed later this season by other ensembles in Freiberg, Germany (November 22), Basel, Switzerland (November 23), and Minneapolis (January 22-25, 2009). We asked Daniel Felsenfeld to write about what Leonard Bernstein’s Mass has meant to him.]

The cover of the published score for Leonard Bernstein’s Mass
Courtesy Boosey & Hawkes, Inc.

It is the early winter of 1987, and I am three days shy of my 17th birthday. I sit in the now-vanished Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Times Square, reading. This is the first time I have been to New York. In fact, hailing as I do from the wasteland of mid-eighties Orange County, California, this is the first time I’ve been further than Chicago, save for a few horrid days (family vacation) in London eight years prior. But I, like every other sad, rheumy-eyed kid from the ‘burbs, am falling in love with the city. It’s an important moment; these feelings, I know even then, will matter. Over fried oysters, I read and read, thinking to myself that I’m finally home.

The book matters as much as the wild, over-stimulating mise-en-scene of Times Square: Joan Peyser’s biography of Leonard Bernstein. Surprisingly, I know precious little about Bernstein at this point in my life—the point before I know myself, in any real way, before I become aware, in practice what I’ve always suspected in theory: that I am a composer. Leonard Bernstein wrote West Side Story, a show I had in my head and fingers from playing piano in the pit (really hard to play, and both Sharks and Jets were mysteries to this kid from the suburbs); he is Jewish (me too!); and he is probably less than twenty blocks away from where I sit reading about him. As the hours pass, as daylight fades into my first ever New York night, I entertain notions that he might just walk by, come in for coffee, sit down, start chatting, and change my life. This does not happen, not in any real way.

Leonard Bernstein
Photo by Victor Kraft, reprinted with permission

Sitting there, consuming every word of the book with the same gusto as the greasy oysters, I learn more. He is a conductor, a composer of symphonies and concertos and a whole host of other impressive-sounding works. He also writes books, plays the piano, lectures widely on matters musical; he went to Harvard and the Curtis Institute, both of which are great learning institutions on the planet Mars, as far as I am concerned; he is boyishly—and Jewishly—handsome, but also austere and distinguished; he almost played Tchaikovsky in a movie; he wrote a piece called Mass which is not so much a church work as a theatre work about a church work, a work whose impact I cannot, at this adolescent point, begin to compute; and—above all—he is a classical musician who parties like a rock star; he is a true a creature of excess, as I too aspire to be. All of this sets my adolescent mind whirring. I have to learn more about this person. More to the point, I have to become this person. So much to do, so much to accomplish, and I am running out of time! We all need heroes. I now have mine.


“Leonard Bernstein? Jewish,” my father—a successful surgeon but not exactly an avatar of the lively arts—says when I mention my newfound hero, putting him in the same category as various members of Sha-Na-Na, the Fonz, Spock, and, as was rumored (and later debunked), Mork from Ork. This is not uncommon among middle-class Jewish fathers.

What did it take to be Lenny, I wonder? (After absorbing all I could about him, though still not as much by him, I’d decided we’d be on his famous nickname basis when we met). I practice the piano, especially my sight-reading so I’d be able to dazzle, dashing things off from the keyboard as he could famously do, pretending to read aptly when I’d spent hours rehearsing, seeming as if music flowed from my very veins as it seemed to flow from Lenny’s. I watch videos of the Young People’s Concerts and affect the same offhand, urbane brilliance (or so I think), that combination of martini-sophistication and shtetl charisma. I study conducting and take up smoking. Most important, I immerse myself in the music that had inspired Bernstein himself, discovering, for the first time, Kurt Weill and George Gershwin. I start composing music of my own; I am eighteen years old, on the precipice of my senior year of high school. And I am writing a musical about rainbows.

Leonard Bernstein at the piano
Photo courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

I market myself as a piano player, Bernstein-style, though I lack his hands—he had, as an early teacher of mine put it, “hands for days.” It does not matter. In the land of the musically blind (read: Orange County) the one-eyed man really is king. I can play a little, and that is all people need. Like Doctor Johnson and the dancing bear, the mere fact that I am playing is enough to impress the locals, especially the opposite sex. I accompany a few singers (mostly of that opposite sex), sit in pits for a lot of musicals (including West Side Story, Wonderful Town, and On the Town) and earn a small-but-independence-generating living in a piano bar near Disneyland during my teenage years, sneaking out at night to work, feeling seedy, consorting with cocktail waitresses and out-of-town Disney drunks. I accompany dance classes (quite a feast-for-the-eyes for a young, straight man), voice lessons, opera rehearsals, and the occasional recital; I play for auditions, for a small theatre company that stages murder mysteries, for dinner theatre productions of Annie or Annie Get Your Gun, do cocktail piano at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, at a local Nordstroms, and at my former high school. I am on the fast track to being Lenny deux.

Meanwhile, a “very nice” (as my parents put it, tone quotes and all) Mormon family lives across the way from me, the son, who’s around my age, loves music. He has a double-decker, zip-up case full of audio cassettes, and after school we indulge in the horrors of ’80s pop: General Public, the Thomson Twins, DeBarge, ad nauseum. I sort of like it, but feel something missing. One afternoon, he asks me sheepishly if I’d like to hear something really special, fear of judgment in his eyes, as if he is making a deep confession. How can I refuse? With a flourish, he unzips the other side of the case, revealing a secret stash: rows of cassettes with music by far off souls named things like Brahms, Shostakovich, Mozart, Bach, Chopin, Debussy, and Liszt. I had never heard much of this music before, barely even heard of these composers even after years of being my piano teacher’s most talented student. We are in a secret place, he and I, where Orange County angels fear to tread. I select one of the plastic jewels from the rows, unaware of how this moment would come to mean.

When Mike starts the music on his little boom-box, low rumbles give way to a loud blasting downward melody in a minor key. This is the opening shot of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We listen for near an hour, as things unfold before me I could not even imagine. Nothing I have experienced—no movie, book, walk, sunset, abject terror, act of violence, moment of vivid exhilaration—can compare to this…this…this beauty. I wish it to go on forever; to me the double bar is a tragic event, as if the fact that the piece had to end is Beethoven being parsimonious. I fall in love for the first time—this score, this set of timbres, is truly where the wild things are, I think, reacting to the only other experience comparable (and that from a decade hence). If the Thomson Twins or David Bowie spoke to my adolescent view of what love could be, this music, with its swoops and kaleidoscopic swirls, its terror and reminiscence, its gravity, gravitas, and a whole host of other wild feelings for which I have no vocabulary, offers far more. It removes me from my unspoken unhappiness, away from my quiet-but-complicated life behind the grand, wood-grained doors of my two-story suburban box home, transports me to other planets, other galaxies, to the life that lies beyond, out of reach; this is the song of the wayfarer that is Danny. I experience the double shock of recognition (this is the music of someone in pain) and alienation (there is a world out there whose surface I do not even know exists, let alone begin to scratch). A few months later, when I screw up the courage to buy the record at the local Warehouse, the conductor whose face graces the large disc is none other than…

For months, I dub tapes from the Garden of Celestial Delights across the street and listen in secret, driving the few short blocks to school blasting Brahms, switching it off before anyone catches me. This music becomes my pornography, a secret titillation, a shame that offers joy and satisfaction in equal parts. I have no context for any of it, cannot tell a soul let alone ask someone to explain, but I know it is saying everything I am struggling to keep back, speaking for and to my deepest adolescent self. I am not immune to these grand hormonal visions, but this, I think, goes far more directly to my hidden core. Mrs. Shimizu, my piano teacher, has her own preferences, and though I play music like this for her, I cannot share my feelings because I cannot possibly explain. Even she, a wonderful musician and teacher, will not understand, because there is too much explaining to do and I do not have the chops to do it. At night, lying in bed, listening with headphones until the sun rises, the notes take over where words fail.

Placentia, California, has no symphony, no opera company, no string quartet (though perhaps just none known to me, in fairness). Los Angeles, half an hour away when traffic was on your side, might as well be in another state, or even another planet: no one I know ever goes there, and I’m not yet allowed to drive the freeway. So I maintain a passionate, secret affair with this music, whose loudest climaxes and most barbaric dissonances are, to me, seductive whispers or arousing calls to action. My parents would disapprove, my friends would misunderstand, but I’m beyond smitten—I am falling hard. This is the music of revolt, of rebellion. My friends with interests in bucking the system play in awful punk bands in their garage or scribble things into their notebooks festooned with monikers of their musical allegiences, all of which, to me, lack depths—I watch my friends line up one-by-one to wear the same clothes, dye their hair the same color, bleat out the same profanities, and kick the same amplifiers, expose the same convenient nerves, describe the same dull pain. Every time, I feel the weight of my eyelids because it just seems so completely listless and dull, not at all the magical cabinet of curiosities, say, of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, which is, to me, a German madman dancing a suicidal tango. To me, in secret, listening to the echt-pornographic sounds of Bernstein conducting Beethoven (or Mahler, Sibelius, Schubert, etc.), my rebellion is quieter, deeper, and more real. It speaks continents, holds forth to the very celestial universe, connects me with the life force surging beneath. Anyone—anyone—can play in a band wherein not learning your instrument is a badge of honor. But a symphony, an aria, a quartet, a sonata divided into violently divided sections called “movements,” that is the darkest, strangest, sexiest hole I can go down, and this is the exact reason I to go there. I am going to war against convention; I am truly a rebel, with a long-standing and noble cause, singing with the song of the earth. And I have to get out.


“Listen to this KYRIE! Wild! Absolutely WILD!” This was my college roommate Greg, who then plays me a recording of the first minute or so of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. It is 1990, I’m twenty, installed at the local community college, and very serious—even pathological—about composing. Fullerton Junior College is not Harvard or Curtis, obviously, but I make do, taking classes in harmony, ear training, piano, counterpoint, form, analysis, not to mention surveys, of poetry, philosophy, comparative religion, creative writing, and psychology, always doing more work than assigned for all classes, staying up late, fuelled by coffee, rebellion, love, aesthetic blood-lust, and unabashed youth. The first Gulf War looms heavy, whispers begin of a reinstated draft that abstractly threatens to cut me short, all for someone else’s oil. I can’t sleep (hardly unusual for me, but the threat of war evolves into an especial mutation of my lifelong insomnia), and so I tape and compulsively watch Twin Peaks over and over, finding comfort in its quirky violence. And I listen to Mass. Over and over and over and over…

The first page of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass
Courtesy Boosey & Hawkes, Inc.

Mass was just the ticket, a summation of all the parallel voices screaming in my ear, vying for my attention. The piece begins in 1970s quadraphonic, atonal, concrete nowhere-land. From every side, in quadraphonic sound (whatever that was) new taped voices play through the speakers, one voice entering after another, a grand chaotic fugue coming at you from all sides. Bernstein sinks you immediately into a loud, violent place part Kander and Ebb, part Pierre Boulez. As things reach a center-cannot-hold fevered torpor, a loud G-major rips through the texture, played, of all things, on a guitar. Then the Celebrant enters, our priest cum narrator cum soul-searcher, playing a guitar, crooning the words, “Sing God a simple song.” Bernstein follows a lovely (if somewhat fugitive) ballad with a jazzy, light commercial “Alleluia,” after which he deploys a marching band, a chorus with kazoos that also whistles. From there, a triple canon and an overblown Greek dance. A lovely choral prayer (reminiscent of the ending from Barber’s Prayers from Kierkegaard) follows, then a rocking number called “I don’t know” with a complicated meter and an angry message. What this sequence establishes is that nothing can possibly be established. Twenty minutes in, and we’ve been so many places that anything is possible. Bernstein, who famously could not decide what kind of composer he was, is throwing caution to the wind. Or, in the words of Stephen Sondheim, his one-time collaborator, in Into the Woods, “You know what the decision is / is not to decide.”

The next two hours is anybody’s game: street Gospel singers, organs blaring fleeting quotations from Beethoven’s Ninth, a mad scene that rivals Lucia. The piece is an intentional embarrassment of riches, an overstuffed tour through the complexities of the Vietnam era, confusing music for confusing times. Bernstein, I now realize, defined so many musical—and cultural—movements at once in the Mass: the folk singers of the 1960s (“Make it up as you go along”), the troubadours, the neo-romantics, the singer-songwriters, composers for Broadway (both of rock and more conventional musicals), the bebop jazzers, the atonal “academic” composers, the experimentalists, the maximalists and the minimalists, psychedelic rockers, composers who played games with numerology, genre-crossing, and spirituality, Tin Pan Alley, Rat’s Alley, the Alley Cats and so much more.

The stage configuration for Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Image courtesy Boosey & Hawkes, Inc.

In the end, the Celebrant, our G-major strummer who stops the madness at the beginning, breaks down. “What are you staring at?” he spits, at the end of the piece. “Haven’t you ever seen an accident before?” But who’s gone mad, really? Him…or us? Or, I think, me? And is anything that happens truly an accident? The nuclear world, religion, the culture, the assassins of Kennedy and King, Nixon, Agnew, and thousands of soldiers dying both in a far-off land and on television, were these all accidents? Or was it Lenny, the genius of mass (pun intended) assimilatrion, who, in looking for simplicity (“God loves all simple things, for God is the simplest of all”) making a mockery of us all? Or is he just a desperate soul with a clear voice? As he cuts through the farrago of dense modernist layers with a crystalline G-major chord, is all he wants to do is sing his “Simple Song” when nothing is simple—none of this is simple?” Nothing is sacred, nothing is profane. Lenny is, in this hairy, open-throttled, thrill-ride of a piece, working out so many complicated issues: religion, war, salvation, hope, fear, modernism, tonality. He turns each one up and down, looking gift horses in the mouth to find the teeth rotten, dragging everyone into the same mud he’s found himself in for years. I could not agree more, especially with the parts of this work that conflict one-another. If he is a mess, if Mass is a mess, than so am I, because I am clinging to these unanswered questions for dear life.

My struggle with Mass is a struggle in myself. I cannot sleep; I smoke, pace, consume coffee, dash down notes in Denny’s or in far-off cities using the hood of my car as a desk, feeling naughty, like I am walking the dark side of some secluded mental street. I am twenty-one, the war is just beginning (or beginning to begin), I am moving to England for a semester to study at Cambridge University, and well into a post-adolescent vision quest, albeit one with a more involved—and important—score. The twin loci of my manic study are religion and music. I read the Bible in many translations, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, dozens of books about Buddhism, the Thelemic Order of the Golden Dawn, theosophy, and even make my way through most of the Book of Mormon. I read legends of the Grail, conspiracy theory, learn how to read tarot cards and astrological charts. I engage in long, deep-into-the-night discussions of these matters with my friend Bronwyn, a year older, fiercely smart, a wonderful singer and actress, and on the same path. In the meantime, the hours not spent reading are spent at the piano, either working or discovering the mysteries of the Contrapunctus’ pull in the Well-Tempered Clavier, or listening to tapes: Copland, Chopin, Laurie Anderson, Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Britten, Barber, Debussy, Ravel, and everything in between. I love Weelkes (or anything played by a “consort”), Monteverdi, Strauss, Wagner (though he hated Jews, as everyone reminded me). And of course, mainstays like David Bowie, the Velvet Underground, Simon and Garfunkel, Tom Waits, and other guitar-laden musics that saved my life at one time or another are not far from my mind or my car stereo (here I omit a few rather embarrassing things better left in that long-scrapped Honda, though I will confess to shows by Sondheim, Finn, and Menken). I am a sponge. I want to know it all, and I pursue this goal with a vengeance that might, were I other-minded, be called “rabbinical.” To me it is necessary, epic, important, vast and cosmological. Twenty-one, indeed…

Through all of this, Mass is my theme song, my touchstone, my secret garden, my musical Castalia, the song of the inescapably confused but willing to try. Everything I want to do in music, it does better. Everything I hear, it contains. All that I feel, it seems to address in a clear and absolutely beautiful way. Not since discovering Fullerton’s Blue Wolf bookstore (now gone) and picking up a copy of a poem called Howl or reading the opening salvo of Tropic of Cancer has anything blown my mind like this fearless, committed music. I dupe tapes from my roommate’s CDs, and for the next year, though I listen to everything, I return to Mass more often than anything, once again clutching a portable cassette player and listening, in secret, until the sad epiphanies of dawn. It becomes my “go to,” accompanying me on long drives in the middle of the night, when restlessness gets the better of me (sometimes to Los Angeles, an hour away; sometimes to San Francisco, eight); I listen to it as I tread the campus from class to class, trying unraveling mysteries as I go. I play the songs on the piano and dream of someday being responsible for the revival of this neglected-but-important piece, with Lenny’s undying gratitude my sole reward. When I ask the few smart people about music I’ve managed to meet about the piece, the word is most often “dated.” When I play it in the car for friends, hoping to find a soul mate who loves like I do, they are mostly horrified or annoyed, barely amused, not interested and patronizing about it to boot. One friend, Bronwyn, understands, or at least is willing to listen to chunks of it over the phone in the middle of the night accompanied by my amazement and explanations. This aside, though, Mass stands as yet another pornographic secret, something to which I listen only when I am certain nobody is looking.


On January 17, 1991, the war begins, and I watch in silent horror as we begin the bombing in far-away Iraq. As a student of hippie culture—having read at least three of Kerouac’s books, I fancy myself a Subterranean, a student of the open road—I am keen on and very knowledgeable about discontent. As the video game describing the war unfurls on television in front of us, I weep openly, read books from the Loompanics Press about how to stage my own death should a draft arise, speak in hushed tones to my friends who are also my age, and find myself even less able to sleep. Mass grows sadly more relevant. You can take your Dylan, your Seeger, your protest songs, your “American Pie” and your “All Along the Watchtower”—I’ve got mine, my “I Don’t Know.” Though of course, a song of protest hardly serves to abrogate the noxious fear of someone of draft age, it can serve to fire up the appropriate anger alongside a more appropriate emotion: anxiety. Even in the far reaches of my plasticine, Disneyfied suburbs, everything I think and do is shot through with paralytic fear.

And then it truly dawns on me, once and for all: I have to get out of Orange County.

The sheer humidity of the lack of culture is an untenable amount of weight, a burden I bear so poorly and yet so strangely because there is no outlet, save for my friend Bronwyn, and even she is not as scared as I. I am upset about the war, about my country, terrified, ashamed, and most people I knew wonder what’s got me so troubled. I am a frazzled mess all the time, a corked bottle ready to blow, a giant ooze of fear. I talk politics and nobody understands; I talk Howl and nobody listens, or even pretends to listen; I try to talk about Beethoven and I may as well speak an antiquated German dialect. I become that predictable lefty artist who calls friends in the middle of the night, a drunk dialer even when sober, a burden, depressed, overstuffed, unable to put anything—anything—in perspective.

And yet somewhere out there is Leonard Bernstein. He wrote a musical about racial troubles, a concerto about anxiety (or at least an Age of Anxiety which I am certain I am living through) and entertained Black Panthers at his home. He can explain the gray areas; he set the words “If I could, I’d confess” which means he must understand, because honestly all I want to do is confess and compose (another form of confession). I am literally unable to contain myself, a stopped dam of overwhelming feelings. I see a doctor, take pills, but nothing helps. Required sleep is a luxury; nights are spent trying to understand; the sun comes up, and I either at the piano begging Bach, Beethoven, or Bernstein to just hear me out or on the highway running from the dawn, listening to the words “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” I brim, runneth over, but my excess sadly sloughs off into the vast expanse of chain supermarkets with plenty of parking, for which my suburb is justly famous.

Leonard Bernstein in his later years
Credit: ©Arthur Umboh/DG
Photo courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Lenny dies, age 72, succumbing to the ravages of his own excesses. Bronwyn also dies, age 22, the result of a car accident. The septuagenarian, just before passing, allegedly said, “What is this?” Bronwyn was run down near the 91 freeway, and I spend countless hours try to imagine her final thoughts on this earth. I will never be in the same room with the great Maestro whose essence had so guided me. I will never get to see the woman Bronwyn will become. I am crushed. I listen to Mass with a fervor, driving toward every subsequent dawn, and each one becomes increasingly elusive. All this pain, this maelstrom of confusion, this sprawl of emotions that cannot be summarized or neatly put down, it is all there in Mass: the history of music, the history of suffering, the history of searching for meaning. Bronwyn is commemorated by ceremonies, tributes, and a Bacchic weekend in the mountains of California. Lenny is commemorated all over the world, but for me his passing is a quieter loss. I mourn the maestro, certainly, but I also mourn a part of myself, the Lenny part. The time finally comes for me to leave. Cassettes are, mirabile dictu, made to be portable.


I arrive at in the University of Santa Barbara at dawn, driving through yet another night and istening to a tape I made for this departure. My old life, my former self, all the dashed hopes and pain, recedes into the distance as my car crawls Pacific Coast Highway northward. Music from West Side Story, the Kaddish Symphony, the “Non-credo” from Mass, the Chichester Psalms, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue all carry me northward to my anywhere-but-here fate. As the sun rises, the ocean on my left, Barber’s Adagio for Strings ferries me safely to my new home and vita nuova. I need not mention whose recording.

Leonard Bernstein Conducting Photo by Paul de Heuck, courtesy The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

I am there for school, or a continuation of school, enrolled as a composition major in the safe enclave of a sub-program called College of Creative Studies. As I unpack my things, my scores, my records and books, the very stuff of my now-transported life, I feel as if the dew is being shaken off, pounds lighter, focused, pointed, proud. I am going to live the dream; I am going to become Leonard Bernstein. “I believe in F-sharp, I believe in G…”

One fine afternoon in Santa Barbara (every afternoon there is fine, to the anguish of this hard-smoking, Times-reading, coffee-swilling hopeful New Yorker) after almost two years of schooling, I accompany a singer in her vocal rep class through one of her frequent meltdowns. She cannot get through the aria, cannot hit the high notes, and is aflutter over fach and spin and the million little in-throat decisions singers have to make in their moving instants. The teacher, a good-hearted tenor, tells her that these things she cannot do, these tiny hills she has yet to climb, are demons. Every demon has a name, he says. Can she name hers? She bristles at what she seems content to believe is a pointless exercise, a childish misdirection, but he insists—wisely—that she do so, that she come up with a persona with which to do battle. Sitting at the piano, the book of 24 Italian Arias spread before me, I think how easy it is to name my demon.

I spend countless hours of my scruffy undergraduate years doggedly learning to play Rhapsody in Blue, like Lenny, but my fingers don’t move that quickly; I strive to memorize whole Puccini scores so as to be able toss them off at cocktail parties, though for some reason I am not invited to any. I write five musicals and reams of concert pieces, having read Lenny’s debate with himself over this exact topic in one of his many books (in which be begrudgingly comes out in favor of the theatre). I swim for hours every the morning to develop the gorgeous back muscles Tallulah Bankhead so admired in him when she showed up at one of his rehearsals at the Philharmonic. I smoke 100s by the pack, drink too much, and also…. Sleep is for the weak, I think to myself as I toss and turn, and I spend my extra hours reading, working, growing, reaching to the goal, toward my demon.

But, despite my better efforts, what is easy for my fictional Lenny is an un-scalable mountain to me. My memory, unlike his, fails; I speak only two languages; my knowledge of the core repertoire is sorely lacking; I am unable to sight-read an orchestral score with any kind of grace or panache while drunk at a party—or while stone sober in the privacy of my own apartment. The pieces I write that hope to dabble in rock, jazz, and Greek dances (as he does in Mass) all seem sophomoric, rote, dull, pretentious. Being him is literally impossible, and I, a foiled Pierre Menard chasing his own Quixote with even less success, start resenting the beast because I cannot stop admiring him to distraction.

I am at the age where most people, especially sheltered, middle-class people such as myself, begin not only to realize that there is more to life than the house in or town in which you’ve grown up, but also that there are quite a few talented people out there. My long-held position as “smartest one in the room” or “most talented one at the piano bar” is in jeopardy, near collapse in fact. And that’s just among the people with whom I have class. Suddenly, I am swept up in a torrential downpour of late-onset jealousy. My hero goes from being my savior to the personal hell of my own mediocrity. I feel like Salieri, vanquished before I begin, utterly fictional, and somehow I begin to pin this discomfort on Lenny. Goaded, shamed, afraid, I turn my nose down and work even harder because I am as scared. I will never measure up. I wade through the molasses of this vale of tears with an infusion of the forced determination of the terrified. Somehow I make it, write my pieces one after the other, stage my final concert and bid goodbye to California forever. Lenny would have wanted it that way.

I wend my way across country to the New England Conservatory, located in the heart of Planet Boston, for graduate school. I’m 24, and my lessened limitations do not scare me as much as they did the day I named my demon. I’ve quit writing musicals, deciding to dedicated myself to concert music instead, vowing to return when I know more. Like the aspiring journeymen I once was, I take to the road, driving across America for my first time, destination essentially unknown save for mentions in books. I’ve never been to Boston, but believe me, I know of someone who has. Mass spins in my cassette player as I turn my life towards the opposite shore, heading east, once again leaving everything—Placentia, the Moral Majority, the piano bar, Bronwyn, and everything I’d built—behind.

On my first day in my new home, I stand beneath the massive, imposing statue of Beethoven in NEC’s main hall. The great composer’s empty eyes bear down on me andf everyone who passes, the sheer weight of him enough to stop anyone. History oppresses me, but I am also tingling with vita nuova infusion once again. I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. When Lenny way a kid, he and a friend would meet with their scores at New England Conservatory, under the statue of Beethoven and head off to practice, to unlock the mysteries contained within all those prettily printed notes. Now, years later, I stand in that exact place, holding scores, bound for a practice room.


Years pass. I get degrees, amass a sizeable catalogue of music in all genres, learn, grow, love, hurt, laugh, sleep (though still not as much as I ought to), write, suffer, seek, find, lose, grieve, repeat. The day after I attend my final class as a Doctoral Student, I and a friend go through the familiar ritual of putting all of my earthly possessions into a U-Haul and I roll out, bound for New York City. I am thirty, have only my dissertation to finish, have been accepted for a two month stint at the MacDowell Colony (where Mass was written), and stand at the ready for the next phase. Life is changing yet again. I am finally going home.

In 2003, Mass is performed in Carnegie Hall, and of course I am in the audience. New York is now my home—I move there at an improvident time, 2001, and consequently suffer a too-direct experience of the worst day in American history. Once again, Mass gets me through, and now, a few years into my residence in my new home, a few years after The Tragic Events, at the beginning of another war, I finally get to hear the piece live. This event elicits an outpouring of enthusiasm in the press as critic after critic admits the guilty secret of a closeted affection for Lenny’s shaggy mess of a Mass. Many damn with faint praise, and I resent them because to me it’s never been a guilty pleasure but an honest one. More important is the fresh relevance of the work, because it is a work for and about troubled times, and New York in the dawn of the 21st Century is certainly one of the great victims of a complicated and dangerous era. Now Mass—for all of its whiz-bang fripperies, its inability to make up its mind—comes off as of the moment, not remotely dated. It could have been written yesterday. Most people in the audience are in medias res of an honest-to-G-d crisis of faith, and Mass seems a fitting soundtrack. But I’ve always thought so. What other piece outlines describes and annotates horror, discontent, discomfort, or a distortion of truth in such a brutal and unflinching way? It is not about sacred vs. profane, but about making the profane sacred and vice-versa; it is about borders being crossed whether you like it or not.

I listen with older ears and, ostensibly, a more sophisticated musical brain, and cannot help but think what a watershed piece Mass continues to be, three decades plus after its inception. Like any masterpiece, it is impossible to imagine this work without what came before it; but unlike any other masterpiece I can think of, this piece wears its history in such a blatant and aggressive way that it almost seems to be begging to be twisted into something new, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes of the past rather than a piece vested in and deeply committed to a certain tradition. This decimation and subsequent revivification of The Great Western Tradition is the kernel of the high-modernist project, but it never really took completely. Mass accomplishes this exact thing, and does it with catchy tunes and major triads.

It is a stretch even for me to compare the piece to Beethoven’s last symphony, but in a way the comparison plays because the aims of both pieces are similar: they each seek a certain housecleaning of the past to pave the way for the new. Think of the last movement of the Ninth, when each tune from the preceding movements is heard and then essentially erased by an arioso lament from the lower strings in unison, and this of course is followed by the famous “Ode to Joy” bubbling up from the bottom and springing to much to life that a mere orchestra cannot contain the message. A chorus and soloists are not only added but need to be there because this is too big for all the forces previously amassed. New sounds need new modes of transmission.

Lenny takes this idea a step further, calling into question even the music of the present, and doing the same. Mass could certainly not exist without Beethoven, Mahler (Symphony of a Thousand?), Copland, Britten (evident in every note, even the most rocking ones), Barber, Blitzstein, Gershwin, Shostakovich, Schoenberg, and on and on. His debts are obvious, hardly secrets—there’s even a brief flash of the “Ode to Joy.” But why I get so frustrated with Mass being a “guilty secret” is that this amalgamation of musical history, this synthesis, allowed this kind of thinking to occur. It hard to imagine a whole slew of very important pieces composed since existing without it, from Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair to Nixon in China, Einstein on the Beach, Circus Maximus or The Ghosts of Versailles, the wild exigencies of Del Tredici’s Alice pieces, especially Final Alice (not to mention his own version of Mass called Pot-Pourri), the entire output of Christopher Rouse, Louis Andriessen, the post minimalists of the Bang on a Can school—David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, Phil Kline, Arnold Dreyblatt, John King, and many others—and beyond. Hell, even the amp-kicking antics of the punk movement (no doubt largely unaware of Mass) or the “classical” bent of prog rock might be a little indebted, even if they are not wholly aware, because Mass is a shape-of-things-to-come work, a shot heard round the world for a new zeitgeist, of the blurring of boundaries, the road of musical excess leading to the palace of spiritual wisdom.

If Lenny, in his earlier symphonies and concertos, gave composers permission to remain true to tonality (foreshadowing so-called Neo-Romanticism by many moons), Mass offered composers a fresh set of permissions to look to the vernacular, to the era, to the new sounds all around them. His was a drive toward synthesis—a loud, garish, and very public synthesis—to use music to ask deeper questions and to ask purely musical questions with larger concerns as metaphor. He had to go everywhere and anywhere, because both the musical and at-large worlds were going everywhere.

Of course, composers had done this before, mixed styles and genres, crossed boundaries, but few so effectively or so visibly. And of course composers have done it since— some who might even be offended by my yoking them to Mass (so please do forgive me, but I assure you it is meant as a high compliment)—with greater grace or subtlety. But few loved both so wisely and too well like Lenny did. And if Mass failed, it failed with Icarian brio, aiming high to the sun and getting close enough for widespread discomfort.


President Nixon boycotted the 1972 premiere at the christening of the Kennedy Center because he had gotten wind of a secret message coded within the Mass, which is completely absurd because there is nothing secret about it. Lenny’s message is plain, obvious, and downright blunt. What to many is or was considered a huge lapse in taste to me is a clarion call. Mass gives us all permission to dare, to fail, to try, to not kowtow to schools of thought but rather to make up your own mind—or, indeed, to not make up your mind. Think for yourself, question everything you came to understand, and throw everything you’ve got at what you make, dare to fail big—this seems to be the take-away message of Mass. Of course this would certainly scare Nixon.

And if it is hard to imagine the musical scene as it exists today without the vivid peregrinations and through-the-walls aspirations of Mass, it is even harder to imagine myself existing within it were it not for Lenny’s monster-piece. I’ve come far, I think, having established myself in New York, writing about music and composing it for a living. I’ve been to fancy cocktail parties (never did dash off any Puccini at a piano, but then again it never seemed to suit the esprit de corps—and who knows, I am still young), met many of the people who were just figures in the books I’d read, and even befriended some, including Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the words to Mass that continue to help me through troubled times.

Bernstein composing
Courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Lenny still scares me, but in certain ways I feel like I can take him. I’ve stopped both the rebelling against and the trying to become, choosing instead to accept him for what he is and to accept myself on the same terms. I’ve doubled down on my own ambition, but have it in a more measured perspective (though those who know me might disagree); I work hard, harder even, and am pursuing—and achieving—that thing Bernstein too dreamed of pursuing in his Massachusetts childhood beneath the Beethoven statue, a life in music. As I type these words, I am in my little studio at Yaddo, an artists’ retreat in upstate New York that saw more than a few visits from Lenny.

I am at the beginning of a career, or at least the middle of a beginning, and owe much of who I am to that blazing comet of a man I never had the luxury of meeting because he got me to the desk, the piano, the gym, to New York, home. When I think of him, in late-night winsome moments (still I cannot sleep), I think of the words of the last song in his cycle I Hate Music, words he wrote himself. The night before he got famous by conducting the New York Philharmonic on a moment’s notice, he premiered this little cycle with soprano Jennie Tourel at Town Hall, and I can only imagine the meaning of those two glorious days for the then-young, bursting-with-potential kid who had no idea he would become Leonard Bernstein. The final words, set to gorgeous, simple, Copland-like broad harmonies, will always be with me when I think of the Bernstein myth, the only Lenny I ever got to know: “I just found out today that I’m a person too, like you.” His final choral benediction to Mass shares a few musical moves with this little innocent song, which is no accident, because I honestly believe that Bernstein’s musical coincidences are not mere coincidences but codes, references, games. He had to have meant it, linking this to the words “…and fill with grace, all those who dwell in this place.” People, just like me, Lenny, and just like you.

It should come as no surprise that critics tore Mass apart after the 1972 premiere. When I think of the reception of the piece then, it must have seemed like a manifestation of pure, histrionic, unbridled evil to both genteel music lovers and “maverick” composers alike. I cannot say for certain, but I imagine it felt pernicious and yet inevitable, scared a lot of people, raised too many unanswerable questions, and plagued people already suffering doubts with even more. I’d venture Lenny’s masterly handling of his own musical uncertainty became an irrefragable fear for all but the most committed, a declaration of kulturkamph that could not be tolerated. When I think of this, today, with a three-decade safety buffer between Mass and myself, I think of the great Broadway composer Richard Rodgers attending the premiere of Hair, after which he honestly believed he was finished, that his kind of music was of the past, that the world was leaving him behind. It must have been a nightmare. But years pass, perspectives shift, our culture adapts or retracts, redacts or assimilates, and new generations come into being with their own experience to bear, avant becomes arriere, and mavericks become either sacred cows or cartoon versions of themselves. The principal of diminishing marginal returns always turns wild into tame through the passage of time, the benefit of hindsight, and an upping of the cultural stakes. Hence the confessions in the papers of Mass as guilty pleasure: we’d come around to an era of barrier destruction to which Lenny was, as usual, privy long before anyone. In other words, the sky—or at least that particular sky—was, indeed, falling.

Bernstein disintegrated at the end of his life. We mortals can never be sure how it feels to be in your sixties, having been a possession of the public for forty of those years. Lenny grappled with aging, and it did not end well. His lifetime of boozing and smoking shortened his time, turning him, by all accounts, into a sad, lost soul, despite his fame, his wealth, his extraordinary output and the knowledge that he’d paved the way for so many. I continued to long for a second Mass, one that would deal with the problems of the ‘80s—the rise of the Moral Majority, the foolish miscasting (and misquote) of America as that shining “City on the Hill,” the War on Drugs, Reagan, the media, computers, nuclear weapons, the cold war, AIDS. But nothing came. Perhaps this was too painful even for him in the same way that folkies from the Sixties or satirists like Tom Lehrer find our world so dire and unfunny that it leaves even the most vocal somewhat paralyzed. Or maybe Lenny had said all he needed to say. Or maybe nobody was listening except me.

Young Leonard Bernstein
Courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Legends are just that, and we love them because they allow us a peek into something impossibly glamorous removed from our most quotidian selves. Between the accounts of orgies and trashed hotel rooms that reportedly comprised Lenny’s final years—rumors I absorbed greedily as permission for early but intense bad behavior of my own—he continued to work, struggling, no doubt, as all composers do, with the blank page, with nagging doubts about the fate of music, about the fate of his music. I do not know this for certain, but I would be willing to throw big stakes that it is true because these are the same malingering demons that plague all artists, and Lenny, for all his showman’s glamour and flamboyant brio, was among the truest artists ever, a dedicated bohemian spirit trapped in the embodiment of a global celebrity. Every morning he rose, Phoenix-like, spending his day as I do, as many of us do, at war with the notes he loved so much, notes that he, like the rest of us lesser mortals, struggled to understand. But the work is the work is the work, and I know that now in a clearer way that ever before. So Lenny, if I may finally call you that, thank you for being my closest companion and worst enemy, my far-off musical mentor and despised adversary, father confessor and father figure for good or ill; my humanist sherpa and fellow traveler, game player and deviser of riddles that continue to cause me pain and push me to the piano, desk, gym on a near-daily basis, my most loved creature and loathed beast; my idol, my handsome and irrepressible demon, my first love with all the attendant cherished disappointments and agonizing ecstasies, the fire beneath me that continues to burn, my dearest friend with whom I always fight, who I will always love, and who I will never know.


Daniel Felsenfeld
Photo by Randy Nordschow

Composer/author Daniel Felsenfeld‘s recent commissions include the one-act opera The Bloody Chamber for the Boulder Chamber Opera, a 30-minute music theatre work for Sequitur, a resetting of David Bowie’s lyrics for Real Quiet with Theo Bleckmann and Petra Haden, The Poet’s Dream of Herself as a Young Girl for mezzo and piano trio to be performed at Stanford University by Amy Schneider and the Harmida Trio, and All Work and No Play, a work for piccolo and piano. His music can be found on the Endeavor and Koch imprints. Felsenfeld is also the author of eight books and hundreds of articles. He teaches at City College and lives in Brooklyn.

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