A SIMPLE SONG from Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Mass’

Started singing this, this morning, while I was showering and changing after a swim at Merthyr Leisure Centre. What triggered it I can’t imagine. I haven’t thought of it in a long time.

Its place in the timeline of my music-life is easy to pinpoint: 1976, I’d just started my PGCE teacher’s training in Cardiff University and bought the LP in a wander-about-town, one lunchtime, on a total whim. The purchase of such an item hints quite strongly at a complex confluence of attractions: not just the exotic and (at that time, for me) alien appeal of a liturgical Eucharistic mass (as opposed to the distinctly low-key non-conformist ‘communion’ services) but also – what seems an incongrous alliance – the excitement of performance and of experimental  musical ‘theatre’– after all what I mainly knew of Bernstein was that he had created the great score for ‘West Side Story’. The liner notes suggested, too, an attempt to blend a variety of musical styles and traditions in this enterprise of re-interpreting ancient liturgy. And even then, 40 years ago, such attempts at a kind of artistic synchretism always appealed.

This song sort of opens the performance, or..no, it kind of breaks across a grander, more traditionally choral ‘false beginning’ to the Mass, and it speaks to yet another internal impulse within this worshipper. I’m not sure whether, by this time, we’d discovered the simpler worship music songs of John Wimber and Vineyard; I’m pretty sure I hadn’t yet discovered Taize or (even later) John Bell/ Wild Goose Worship chants, but the longing for less-cluttered expressions, to balance wordier, more cerebral hymnody, was certainly there. [Of course we were becoming familiar with songs emanating from the house-church movement, many of which meditated on single phrases: ‘Jesus/ He died/He rose’.. etc.. And many of the songs coming from the charismatic movement eg. Fisherfolk/Church of the Redeemer songs were both ‘simple’ (Consider their famous ‘8-fold Alleluia’) and frequently open-ended in a way that encouraged improvisation (‘Come into his presence singing’.. and Max Dyer’s work song ‘Pulling the Weeds’, and  Diane Davis’s artless-timeless’Thank you Lord’ and many more…)]

So yes, this song eloquently addresses that need: along with ‘simplicity’, an invitation also to  improvisation. ‘Sing like you like to sing/God loves all simple things/For God is the simplest of all.’ There’s truth in this. Of course, there’s a quaint and obvious irony  in the song’s premise – ‘Sing God a simple song/Lauda laude/Make it up as you go along…’ – that this is a constructed casualness, only apparently improvisational (ars celare artem!): this ‘simple song’ is of course exquisitely and consciously crafted by a master musician’s skilful artistry.

I’ve only ever seen Bernstein’s Mass performed on one occasion (in Cardiff’s St David’s Hall – beautiful but often criticised for poor acoustics) and found it on the one hand a bold and exciting project and on the other a little awkward in overall construction and ultimately not totally satisfying. Still, the ‘simple song’ has stuck with me, as a song and I suppose as a concept – and it was a nice surprise to find, since it came popping up out of my head this morning, that it must have taken some kind of root in this little brain; and this heart still thrills to ‘make it up as you go along’ and sing out semi-improvised Laudas and Laudes to its God.

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One thought on “A SIMPLE SONG from Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Mass’

  1. Jeff, I love Bernstein’s Mass and particularly this opening. Powerful and poignant. This was very influential in some of the “art” songs I wrote in those early years at Redeemer. Thanks for reminding me of it!

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