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Chichester Psalms

Setting Psalms and parts of Psalms in Hebrew, Bernstein relied on his theatrical instincts in creating these dramatic and immediately impactful settings.

Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1918, grew up in Boston, and died in New York on October 14, 1990. He completed his Chichester Psalms on May 7, 1965, fulfilling a commission from the Very Rev. Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, Sussex, England, for the Chichester Festival. The piece was first performed on July 15, 1965, by the New York Philharmonic under the composer’s direction with the mixed-chorus Camerata Singers, Abraham Kaplan, conductor, and John Bogart, boy alto, at Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center, New York. The first performance as the composer conceived it—with all-male chorus, the treble parts being performed by boys—took place on July 31, 1965, at Chichester.

The score of Chichester Psalms calls for chorus, boy singer, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (7 players: glockenspiel, xylophone, chime in B-fiat, cymbals, suspended cymbal, tambourine, triangle, rasps, whip, wood block, three temple blocks, snare drum, bass drum, bongos), harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The piece is about 20 minutes long.

During his eleven years as music director of the New York Philharmonic (1958-69), Bernstein completed almost no compositions apart from his Kaddish, Symphony No. 3 (1963) and his Chichester Psalms (1965), which add up to about one hour of music. In December 1963, Bernstein received a letter from the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, Dean of the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England, asking him to compose a work for the cathedral’s music festival in August 1965. “I do realize how enormously busy you are,” wrote Dr. Hussey, “but if you could manage to do this we should be tremendously honoured and grateful. The sort of thing that we had in mind was perhaps, say, a setting of the Psalm 2, or some part of it, either unaccompanied or accompanied by orchestra or organ, or both. I only mention this to give you some idea as to what was in our minds.”

Once the commission was accepted, Dr. Hussey provided further practical details: “The string orchestra will probably be the Philomusica of London, a first rate group. In addition there could be a piano, chamber organ, harpsichord and, if desired, a brass consort (three trumpets, three trombones). It is not really possible to have a full symphony orchestra for reasons of space and expense and the fact that the combined strength of the three Cathedral Choirs is about 70 to 75 (all boys and men)…. I hope you will feel quite free to write as you wish and will in no way feel inhibited by the circumstances. I think many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of ‘West Side Story’ about the music.”

Dr. Hussey got precisely what he asked for, including the Psalm 2 setting and the “hint of ‘West Side Story’”—both at the same time. The second movement, which sets that Psalm, includes a section for male chorus that recycles music cut from the Prologue of West Side Story. It is perhaps enriching to know that what is now sung to the Hebrew text from Psalm 2, “Lamah rag-shu goyim / Ul’umim yeh’gu rik?” (“Why do the heathen so furiously rage together?”), originally was to have been intoned by a Manhattan street gang proclaiming Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics “Mix—make a mess of ’em! Make the sons of bitches pay”—which is not so distant in spirit if distinct in idiom.

Bernstein lifted other thematic material from music he had planned for an uncompleted The Skin of Our Teeth musical; King David’s exultations were found to scan similarly to the discarded texts Comden and Green had proposed for that project. One of those latter themes had itself been borrowed from a psalm setting by Bernstein’s composer-friend Lukas Foss. Foss explained: “He said to me: ‘Well, Lukas, here’s what happened. I liked that tune in your Psalms and I used it in The Skin of Our Teeth. And when that didn’t work out, I used the material from The Skin of Our Teeth for my Chichester Psalms so it was like the criminal re-visiting the scene of the crime! Your tune found its way back to the same words.”

Each of the three movements involves a Hebrew text derived from two psalms—one in its entirety, one selectively—which may support each other’s ideas or provide contrast: Psalms 100 (complete) and 108 (fragmentary) in the first movement, Psalms 23 (complete) and 2 (fragmentary) in the second, Psalms 131 (complete) and 133 (fragmentary) in the third. The first movement opens in a rather Coplandesque spirit, infused with rhythmic punch and wide melodic intervals. This yields to snazzy music that dances giddily in 7/4 meter, its effect strikingly reminiscent of material in Bernstein’s Candide. Near the movement’s end falls an irresistible section with pizzicato strings, staccato brasses, and delicate percussion, an expanse of surpassing charm that precedes a final statement from the solo vocal quartet and chorus.

In the second movement, a boy alto (or countertenor) sings the famous 23rd Psalm to a harp accompaniment, just as the original psalmist presumably would have done. The women’s chorus takes up the thread but is interrupted by the savage male chorus (this is the Psalm 2/West Side Story section). The women’s chorus and the boy soloist return with their placid melody as the men recede into the distance, though the violent underpinnings still get the last word.

The third movement begins in a spirit of rugged Americanism against which is juxtaposed a somber allusion to “Tonight” from West Side Story. This orchestral prelude gives way to a song of comfort and tenderness, its warm embrace unrolling leisurely in unusual 10/4 meter. As it approaches its end, the a cappella chorus sings a hushed chorale giving thanks for peace and unity, with the orchestra adding its gentle voice at the very conclusion.

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is program annotator of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, and served as Leonard Bernstein Scholar-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press).

The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of Chichester Psalms took place at Tanglewood on July 3, 1970, with Seiji Ozawa conducting the BSO, Harvard Glee Club, Radcliffe Choral Society, and Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and Robert Puleo, boy soprano.