Born 25 Years Too Late: The Advantages and Disadvantages of a Modern Topic

Ever since I first listened to Bernstein’s MASS, it stood out to me as a unique and powerful work. I have always wanted to explore the work more, and learning about the mass and its traditional forms (and how composers extended that) gave me a greater appreciation for the work through a greater understanding of its construction.

I was first given the opportunity to write about MASS at the end of Music 242 (Music History 2) when we were tasked with creating an annotated bibliography and writing a topic proposal for a paper we were not actually going to write in order to practice the art of research. Now, we are blessed with the opportunity to write about whatever we want (so long as it contains a whisper of the Reformation) and I finally get to write it. In that proposal, I set the goal of comparing three of Bernstein’s works (MASS, Chichester Psalms, and Kaddish), something which now seems much more daunting and unfeasible for a 5-minute podcast. I ultimately decided to only focus on MASS, and to tie in the reformation by discussing how Bernstein altered and expanded the Catholic mass tradition.

Because I had done the annotated bibliography previously, I had a good starting place. When I first opened Catalyst (R.I.P. Bridge Squared) for the first time and turned to EBSCO, I discovered two things. First, when you write about a topic that is fairly recent (in comparison to many of my classmates’ topics 1971 is not long ago) the kinds of sources you find are either very general (biographies of Bernstein with mentions of MASS, collections of sources, etc.) or very specific (dissertations that analyze specific parts of the work, comparisons of musical style between works). Second, I learned that because of its newness people are still actively evaluating its merits discussing its intentions, most evident in the wide variety of reviews of the work that have been written and are continuing to be written as modern performances continue to reinterpret the work.

It is from these two categories that I found two sources from which I ended up drawing a lot of my material: the first a dissertation on how the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) influenced the “concert mass” which uses MASS as one of three examples, and a more recent (2008) article from Opera News in which a recent Juilliard grad praises the work for its ingenuity and raw emotional power. I would not have even found the first of these had I not talked about the project with my friend and classmate Natalie who is examining how Vatican II impacted congregational singing in the Catholic church since as a born-and-raised protestant I had never heard of Vatican II or its implications.

I have found myself wishing I could have been born 25 years earlier so I could have perhaps talked with Bernstein himself before his death to discover what he really meant. But while finding research on such a recent topic has proven to be a challenge, it has also proven to be rewarding and illuminating through talking with my peers and finding connections to their topics, accessing a wealth of primary sources from the time of MASS’s debut, and engaging actively with the current scholarly output.

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