LEONARD BERNSTEIN AND THE MISSA BREVIS
Q: There is another 20th century composer that I want to talk to you about because you knew him well and he's been an incredibly important figure, musically, in this century, but also particularly in America, and that's Leonard Bernstein. You knew him, and you had some, in fact, you commissioned the Missa Brevis.
RS: Yeah. We commissioned that, oh three or four years ago, and Lenny said he wanted, he’d be happy to write it, wanted to write it. In his Forward to that piece, he says it's my idea. He took his choruses from The Lark, which he'd written for a Broadway play, which were written for seven voices, and were in French texts, and The Lark was a Jean d'Arc story, and he put them - as a matter of fact, there were one or two that had Latin texts, and he didn't have to change that at all, because he had a, I forget, which was it, it was a "Dona Nobis Pacem" or something like that, no that "Souvenir du Printemps" becomes "Dona Nobis Pacem". So he took these choruses and he said it was my idea.
I'd asked him before we went to France, before we went to Russia, excuse me, if there was a - and that would be '67, I think - if he had something that we could take over there, because I wanted to see that they heard some of his music. And he had these choruses and they didn't sort of work on our program. We were doing three programs, we should have been able to find a place for them, but we were doing rather larger American works like - slightly larger - like Aaron Copland's In the Beginning and a few others, and Charles Ives' Harvest Home Chorales and his 90th Psalm.
So it didn't work at that time, but he, and he was kind enough so that he didn't take a composer's fee from us. He was happy to give it to us, and he re-made these pieces, as Bach did many of his cantata movements, and put mass text words into them. And then it came out to be about an 8-minute piece and we recorded it, and its release was his Chichester Psalms, I think, and then I found out when –
I had scheduled an all-Bernstein program. This was slightly a year or so before his death. I'd scheduled an all-Bernstein program with the Dallas Symphony, and when the - which included the Missa Brevis - and when the parts arrived from the publisher, lo and behold there was almost twice as much music as there had been in the sort of manuscript copy which we'd used to record it. And I found out by telephoning and publishers and so on that a young friend of his, a student composer in Washington, D.C., had, with Mr. Bernstein's guidance, had undertaken to enlarge the text, so it included a whole mass text. It still was a missa brevis because there was very little repetition or anything, but instead of being sort of 7 or 8 minutes long, it was now 12 to 14 minutes long. It almost doubled the length of it, without adding much music, but by repeating, adding maybe only one or two pages of music, but repeating, and the piece was economical enough so it could stand the repetition. One didn't mind the repetition at all. One just became more sort of familiar with it, and it got a little more "motor-iety". So it moved along. And so we did it. I did it in its new edition at Dallas, and we're going to do it again in its present form, the final form, in France this summer and may have a chance to record this new version of it.
So it's a piece which - I think it's a fine, fine piece. He asked me to add some chimes or something or some percussion in between. The chimes are added occasionally and they're sort of chimes fanfares almost, to establish - to break up the movements, and to also give a little bit of intonation if the pitch is going, because it's an a capella piece other than that. And then there are a few tambors at the end, which go with the prayer for peace. And it's a good piece. It's a, I think -
You know it used to be said that composers thought Bernstein was a great conductor, and conductors thought he was a great composer, and pianists thought he was - but he was obviously extraordinarily gifted. There have to have been very few Americans, Northern Americans at least, who've been this gifted in my lifetime, and he was gifted in all sorts of ways. I think his - what I started to say was that I've done now The Age of Anxiety and the Jeremiah Symphony. I haven't done the Kaddish yet, which was his last, but I've done the other works, and I was involved in the recording of some of his early Broadway stuff, and also with a Blitzstein piece which he recorded, the Airborne. I did some narration on that in my childish tenor voice in the early years.
Just an extraordinarily, extraordinarily gifted man.