Bernstein's Seemingly Simple Song

This essay originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 17 March 2015. To read it there, click here.

Leonard Bernstein listening to one of Daron Hagen's compositions at Tanglewood in 1984.

Leonard Bernstein listening to one of Daron Hagen's compositions at Tanglewood in 1984.

In 1971, the year he became the first music critic to receive the Pulitzer Prize, Harold Schoenberg wrote of the premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS: “So this MASS is with it — this week? But what about next year?” Bernstein, though lavishly honored during his lifetime by those who admired and respected his music, his music-making, and the comet-like intensity of his life force, was never awarded the Pulitzer, and it wasn’t until 1981 that the American Academy of Arts and Letters invited him to become a member.

When I was eleven years old, my brother, who two years earlier had turned me on to Jesus Christ Superstar, played me MASS. He was old enough to be worrying about the draft; we watched the numbers climb under the little black soldier and the little white soldier just over Walter Cronkite’s shoulder with horrified fascination. I brought the big, floppy LP’s of  MASS with me to Linfield School, taught “God Said” to my classmates, and led them in a rousing rendition of it on the playground during recess, prompting a call home from the vice principal (who had not one ironic bone in his body) to my mother, who, laughing, no doubt told him to get “with it.” 

My MASS, the one spinning away in 1972 on the turntable in my parents’ den, began with suave, colorful, emotion-free opera-types singing in Greek — the furthest thing from the traditional classical music, show tunes and rock-n-roll to which I, as a Lutheran kid from Wisconsin related. It was exotic, but it didn’t make me feel anything. That the Celebrant should clear the air with a single swipe on the open strings of his guitar expressed clearly what this MASS was going to be about: modernist music would express “Life After the Bomb,” decadence, agnosticism; tonal music would express innocence, faith, rebirth. There would be no attitudinizing, no proselytizing; no value judgments made on different styles of music in this score; as Bernstein famously pointed out at the Grammys decades later, there would be “only good music and bad music.”

MASS begins with a cacophonous prelude of delightfully colorful modernist blowouts overlapped like clever people talking over one another at a cocktail party. Famously, the Celebrant cuts through this with his electric guitar, strumming the open strings with all the Rock God power chord authority of a young Jim Morrison and stilling the Babel of compositional complaints. It’s Matthew 21:16. And, to the annoyance (and exquisite embarrassment) of so-called subtle thinkers like Tom Wolfe and Harold Schoenberg, Bernstein actually meant it.

So begins Bernstein’s “A Simple Song.” With joyous open G’s and D’s on the guitar, the Celebrant spells “G-d” out in music with the middle left out in the traditional fashion, just as Bernstein leaves the third out of his chord. It’s an innocent, pre-musical place; a chord that anyone who can pick up the guitar can strum without knowing how to play. So begins a supposedly “simple” song that is a textbook example of what a composer can do when he has the craft to conceal his craft.

The Celebrant enters on the fifth in G major with the word “sing.” The C-sharp that follows is both the Marc Blitzstein / Bernstein signature interval, the one used to poison the harmonies in Blitzstein’s opera Regina and to organize the drama in West Side Story and anything but simple: the word “God” has been placed on the “forbidden” tritone, rife with ambiguity and harmonic instability, ready to modulate into any key; it’s a note of many colors, but, in the event, serves as a “passing tone” to the words “simple song,” which pass in four beats through iii, and a feint toward the dominant of A minor before settling on the relative major of A, C major, the subdominant in G major, for the word ‘lauda,’ and a tender plagal cadence back to G.

And so it continues, sounding like a pop song and functioning all the time in the way Bernstein himself did, on several levels at once, a semiotician’s dream: entertaining and illuminating, clever and heartfelt, knowledgeable, but filled with disarming wonder, revealing the obvious without embarrassment or cynicism because the most important things bear repeating. 

The next section frankly “comps” the way a novice guitarist might, or like a cocktail pianist in C major, disarming the listener but keeping things unsettled with an E-E flat cross relation (the “happy” major third alternating with the “sad” minor third) and the insertion of a tritone again, like a little musical question mark, on the word “praises” before adding a Pan-like flute, in G minor, playing a “fill” on the melody to which the words “sing God a simple song” were sung earlier over “All of my days.” Deft touches that only a composer who knows the repertoire and who knows that the mass has always been the best show in town would think of abound, like having the strings enter to halo the words “Lord” and “God.” There is in this opening number the allusiveness of Richard Strauss as Bernstein taps every high, medium, and low cultural reference point rattling around in his overflowing imagination in an ardent desire to communicate with everyone in the Congregation.

I intuited this at eleven, spent the eighties learning how composers like Bernstein did it, and the nineties coming to terms with something (learned) in me that felt that it was all somehow too facile in its execution. I can’t help comparing Bernstein’s virtuosic compositional display to most of the theater music I hear these days being passed off as visionary and shake my head.

Ned Rorem told me once that my music was most effective when it was simple, stipulating that writing complicated music was a lot easier than not. I was too young when he said it to me to understand what I know now: he meant that my music was best when it appeared to be simple. It is more important to be understood than it is to be loved. Or respected. Now I understand that it required a sort of courage for a man of Bernstein’s sophistication and time to drop in that little soft rock “boom-chick,” in the B section, to gently touch on the jazzy major seventh with a grace note on the word “help,” to push the jazz gesture just a trifle harder on the “sting” beneath the final “laude.” What critics like Schonberg deemed self-indulgent lapses in taste are revealed, in hindsight, to be the unapologetic gestures of a master.

The other shoe drops during the Sanctus, when the Celebrant plays two open E’s on an acoustic guitar, thinks out loud the solfège syllable “mi” on the pitch E, to which it corresponds, and then freely associates that “Mi alone is only me. But mi with sol,” he continues, moving to the G, “Me with soul,” continuing the pun, “Mi sol Means a song” and he uses a commercial pop release into C major, but equates God with C major as he has throughout the piece, unfolding into a delicious C major triad, then building on it, using more sophisticated compositional tricks like a sprung bar of five beats on the word “grow” for text painting, climaxing on a high G (a “sol”) on the word “soul” before, unable to restrain himself, he is absolutely compelled to launch into “Kadosh! Kadosh!”

I experienced a frisson at eleven, as I sang along in my swimming trunks on the floor of our den, and just did, when I sang sing and played through it at the piano a few moments ago, aged fifty-three, my seven year old son, across the room, building with Legos, singing along.

I couldn’t have felt more validated when Catherine Parsonage wrote about my opera Bandanna, “Hagen’s style encourages audiences to be actively involved in constructing their own meanings from the richness of the textual and musical cross-references in his work,” for I believe this is exactly the sort of open mind Bernstein penned MASS for. Performances at the Vatican and around the world have guaranteed its place not just in people’s hearts, but in the repertoire. Most emerging composers in their thirties — the pitched battles between the modernists and the traditionalists long since over — consider the prim reviews MASS received (if they consider them at all) with detached amusement.

Over the years, I have turned to Benjamin Britten for his cool, brutally elegant characterizations and the finest personal lexicon of articulation markings of any opera composer. I’ve reached out to Richard Strauss for the emotional and psychological subtlety that his quicksilver and quicksand-like chromatic harmonies convey. And I turn to Bernstein when I need a reminder of how a composer must be willing to put everything on the line. 

Composers tell one another the story of Paul Simon asking Bernstein for lessons and Bernstein turning him down, telling him that lessons would “ruin” him. I have a poet colleague of the highest calibre who, in late middle-age, rather than concentrating on his forte, climbs up on the bandstand to play pop songs that showcase his lyrics that he has co-written with friends, as though to say that a pop song and a complex operatic aria are of equal sophistication. Well, on rare occasions, they can be. But, overwhelmingly, they simply are not, no matter how much one wants them to have been. Writers and amateurs (bless them) get to make this mistake; composers may not.

Because instinct and talent will carry you just so far. Even though you don’t have to be able to read music to write a great tune, one of the lessons that Bernstein’s “Simple Song” teaches is that you need more than just a true heart and a clever mind to compose music of a calibre equal to the finest visual and literary art. One needs the craft to conceal one’s craft.

Bernstein, at his best, reminds me that you have to know what you’re talking about before you shake your fist at the Man. He reminds me that, as a composer, one must take the risk of really being oneself, how one must view musical and professional authority figures with a critical gimlet-eye, take the risk of having people whose opinion you admire wonder aloud why you seem to need to be “with it,” so that, if everything aligns, music might just carry one up to that celestial high G-D.

An abridged version of this essay has also been reprinted in the Leonard Bernstein newsletter Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs.