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Faculty of Music


Prof. Christopher Chowrimootoo (University of Notre Dame)

Staging Religious Affect in Bernstein's Mass 

Commissioned in order to celebrate the opening of the Kennedy Center, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers (1971) originally caused quite a stir. While some commentators interpreted its flamboyant combination of Catholic liturgy, grand opera, and protest songs as capable of teaching even seasoned clergymen “how to be priests,” others cast it as sacrilegious in the extreme. Still more regarded it as selling God out to the lowest bidder, as if to epitomize the contemporary secularization scourge.

In this talk, I examine Mass and its contradictory reception against 1960s debates about the viability of religion in the “secular” age. Instead of trying to resolve the work’s contradictions, I show how Bernstein and his collaborators afforded audiences the flexibility to interpret the work however they chose, in accordance with their own positions on the sacred-secular divide. At the same time, I argue that there was more to Mass’s “sacred” moments than a mere “style,” which audiences—in the spirit of postmodern pluralism or relativism—were free to take or leave. Indeed, my paper sets out to demonstrate how arguments for and against religion could co-exist alongside religious catharsis, which drew even the most disenchanted listeners into what I call its “affective” realm.

In so doing, I not only challenge rigid oppositions between sacred and secular but also delineate the distinct planes on which they operate in Mass. More specifically, I draw on recent scholarly theories of “religious affect” to show how Bernstein’s multimedia, dramatic event staged a kind of religiosity that worked against the libretto’s semantic meaning—one whose authenticity was more emotional than intellectual, more bodily movement and energy than theological argument or proof. 

Christopher Chowrimootoo is an Associate Professor in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Middlebrow Modernism: Britten’s Operas and the Great Divide (California, 2018) and co-editor of "Colloquy: Musicology and the Middlebrow" (JAMS, 2020) and The Oxford Handbook of Music and the Middlebrow (forthcoming, 2023). He is in the early stages of work on his second monograph, entitled Sacred Secularism: Music and Religion in Middlebrow Culture.

Wednesday, 10 May, 2023 - 17:00 to 18:30
Event location: 
Lecture Room 2, Faculty of Music