"A Simple Song" Around the Advent Wreath
Hope in the Darkness and Leonard Bernstein's MASS
My church is doing a pretty cool lead up to Christmas this year. Each week they’re taking a Christmas hymn and discussing the history, liturgy, and text that inspired its writing. They’re calling it The Music and the Meaning. A great idea.
Christmas music is such a beautiful way of participating in the spirit of Christmas, even for those who don’t celebrate Christmas in a particularly religious way. I have my go to favorites that I cue up between Thanksgiving and Christmas like A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi Trio and the soundtrack for When Harry Met Sally with music by Harry Connick Jr. I just feel happier when I’m listening to these albums.
(If you don’t have Spotify on your phone I encourage you to read this on your computer so you can listen to the songs as you go.)
But I have other favorites that don’t necessarily bring me into the hygge spirit and coziness of the holidays, but drop me right into the mystery of the Advent season where we are waiting for the coming of the Christ. So I thought over the next five weeks I’d dive into five different albums that take us on the journey around the advent wreath.
The first week’s candle represents HOPE.
Leonard Bernstein’s MASS
The august composer Leonard Bernstein was commissioned by Jaqueline Kennedy to create a theater piece for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971. Following the tumult of the 60’s and the death of President Kennedy and his brother Robert, Bernstein along with lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin) attempted to create a musical piece that captured the zeitgeist of a broken and cacophonous American Spirit that took the listener on a journey towards Hope.
After conducting the funeral for Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 and then writing a short, inspired and yet unused piece (A Simple Song) for Franco Zefferelli’s movie on Saint Francis, Bernstein decided that the liturgy of the traditional Latin Mass offered the perfect structure for the work. He called it MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers. Now, it is simply referred to as Mass.
“The son of Russian-Jewish parents, a social liberal, and lifelong activist, Bernstein made a surprising choice: the Roman Catholic Mass. But instead of a straightforward, purely musical setting of the Latin liturgy, he created a broadly eclectic theatrical event by placing the 400-year-old religious rite into a tense, dramatic dialog with music and lyrics of the 20th century vernacular, using this dialectic to explore the crisis in faith and cultural breakdown of the post-Kennedy era.
[Bernstein and Schwartz] took the Tridentine Mass, a highly-ritualized Catholic rite meant to be recited verbatim, and applied to it a very Jewish practice of debating and arguing with God. The result was a piece that powerfully communicated the confusion and cultural malaise of the early 1970s, questioning authority and advocating for peace.”
- from leonardbernstein.com
The peace activist who founded the Plowshares movement, Fr. Daniel Berrigan acted as a resource for Bernstein as he composed. What I wouldn’t give to have been in the corner of the room when these conversations took place, Berrigan and Bernstein writing a Mass for the people. I have to admit it makes me a little weepy.
Mass starts with Devotions in the form of a most chaotic Kyrie Eleison, a prayer that begs, “Lord, have mercy.” You can imagine from the depths of the division over the Vietnam war, over the civil rights movement and the deaths of so many of its leaders, the prayer becomes a cry to a mute God.
But then a chord silences the chaos and A Simple Song plays. The Celebrant sings with a striking purity of melody and vision. It is a stunning song that moves me to tears every time I hear it.
Sing God a simple song
Lau da lau de
Make it up, as you go along
Lau da lau de
Sing, like you like to sing
God loves all simple things
For God, is the simplest of all
For God, is the simplest of all
I will sing the Lord a new song
To praise him, to bless
him, to bless the Lord
I will sing his praises, while I live
All of my days
Blessed is the man who loves the lord
Blessed is the man who praises him
Lau da lau da lau de
And walks in his way
I will lift up my eyes
To the hills from whence comes my help
I will lift my voice to the Lord
Singing lau da lau de
For the lord, is my shade
Is the shade upon my right hand
And the sun shall not smite me by day
For the Lord my knight
Blessed is the man who loves the Lord
Lau da lau da lau de
And walks in his name
As the piece continues, the congregants made up of disillusioned youth start to answer back within the liturgy questioning the priest and arguing with God. The song, I Don’t Know is a meditation probably as relevant today as ever.
Lord, I could go confess
Good and loud, nice and slow
Get this load off my chest
Yes, but how, Lord, I don’t know
What I say I don’t feel
What I feel I don’t show
What I show isn’t real
What is real, Lord, I don’t know
No, no, no …
I don’t know
Followed by the bluesy “Easy” the narrative that starts in devotion turns to doubt and cynicism building to a full contemptuous challenge. There’s a sadness in the Gloria that follows. A Gloria in response to disconnection and loss. A simple deconstructed melody, discordant and manic which becomes the song “Half the People.”
Well, I went to the holy man and I confessed
Look, I can beat my breast
With the best
And I’ll say almost anything that gets me
It’s easy to shake the blame for any crime
By trotting out that mea culpa pantomime:
“Yes, yes, I’m sad
I sinned, I’m bad.”
Then go out and do it one more time
[SECOND ROCK SINGER]
I don’t know where to start
There’s so much I could show
But how far, Lord, but how far can I go?
I don’t know
[SECOND BLUES SINGER]
If you ask me to join you in some real
Now that might be nice
Once or twice
But don’t look for sacraments or sacrificе
They’re not worth the pricе
It’s easy to have yourself a fine affair
Your body’s always ready, but your soul’s
Don’t count on trust
Come love, come lust
It’s so easy when you just don’t care
Half the People starts with the four lines written by Paul Simon given to Bernstein as a Christmas present. Listen to this and tell me these lyrics aren’t prophetic.
Half of the people are stoned
And the other half are waiting for the next
Half the people are drowned
And the other half are swimming in the
They call it
And, baby, where does that leave you
You and your kind?
As the Mass moves forward “The Word of the Lord” and “God Said” become challenges to the World. In Word, while dissenters may be imprisoned and silenced, nothing can silence the truth of the word of the Lord. And God Said becomes a satire of Man’s selfishness.
Dear Brothers: This is the gospel I
Preach; and in its service I have suffered
Hardship like a criminal; yea, even unto
Imprisonment; but there is no imprisoning
The word of God …
God made us the boss God gave us the cross We turned it into a sword To spread the Word of the Lord We use His holy decrees To do whatever we please And it was good, yeah And it was good, yeah And it was goddam good
You can hear the echo of Berrigan’s Plowshares movement here as it turns Isaiah 2:4 on its head.
He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
Instead of the swords being turned into useful plowshares, the cross itself is turned into a sword “to spread the Word of the Lord.”
The questioning of the congregation continues to build until the Celebrant can’t go on and in an act of desperation he destroys the alter and with it the Eucharist, singing the aria Things Get Broken. Everyone is still as the priest pulls off his vestments and leaves the stage.
After some silence a lone flute is heard and then the voice of a young boy reprising A Simple Song. But this time the song is not “simple” but “secret.” Perhaps a nod to a personal, metabolized faith rather than an externalized show of faith. One by one the congregants join him as an act of renewal. At last the Celebrant returns in the street clothes he started in and joins too in the song.
The mass concludes not with discordant prayers as it started, but with a unison, harmonious “Amen” and “go in peace.”
Granted Mass isn’t something you’ll put on as you watch the yule log or listen to as you cook a Christmas Eve roast; unless maybe you have Puccini, Sondheim and John Cage on your playlist in constant rotation. But I would encourage you to sit in a quiet place and listen. If nothing else, listen to A Simple Song and its reprise. They are gossamer. They are the essence of the Hope of Advent.
“I will sing to the lord a new song.”
I will learn a new way of being, a new story, a new path to take. That is the hope of the Messiah. The hope of Love incarnate, enfleshed and actively moving among us. That is what we are waiting for in this waiting time. In this Holy time that hopes to heal old wounds.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
When Bernstein was asked to create what became Mass I believe there must’ve been a moment of annunciation - an announcement of the Holy immanent and embodied in instruments, breath and bodies. That God buries all the hope we long for in notes and phrases, decrescendos and staccatos, in lyrics that sting and soothe. At a time when nothing can be said to heal our nation’s wounds, music fills the silence with a simple song.