Bernstein: Chichester Psalms – Hebrew psalms with a “hint of West Side Story”

Chichester_Psalms2018 is the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. Highgate Choral Society celebrate this occasion with a performance of one of his most popular choral works “Chichester Psalms” in our next concert on Saturday 19 May 2018 at 7pm at St Michael’s Church, Highgate, London N6 6BJ. 

Highgate Choral Society will be joined by the countertenor James Hall, Milo Harper (harp), Molly Lopresti (percussion) and Edward Battling (organ) and will be conducted by Ronald Corp. 

Apart from the Chichester Psalms choir and soloists will perform a varied programme with music by Janácĕk, Lauridsen, Britten, Vaughan Williams and others. 

1. Chichester Psalms is a work by Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) for mixed choir, boy solo and orchestra. Initially the work was written for a male choir where the soprano and alto voice parts are sung by boys. Bernstein allowed and conducted performances with mixed choir, but stipulated that the alto solo part should always be sung by a boy or a countertenor, but not by a woman. Bernstein prepared later a version in which the orchestral forces are reduced to organ, harp and percussion. This is the version which Highgate Choral Society will perform in the concert. The solo part will be sung by a countertenor.

2. In 1958 Leonard Bernstein became Musical Director of the New York Philharmonic. In this position he conducted a large number of concerts, made many recordings and also commissioned a substantial amount of music. However, there was only very limited time for Bernstein to compose music himself. In the 1964-1965 season he took a sabbatical year in order to have to time to compose.

Leonard Bernstein’s main project at the beginning of this sabbatical year was the composition of a new musical based on Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of our Teeth. This project was a collaboration with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, two of Bernstein’s close friends. However by January 1965 the project had collapsed and Bernstein wrote in a letter that he was now “suddenly a composer without a project, with half of a golden sabbatical down the drain”.

This situation changed quickly. Already one year earlier in December 1963 The Reverend Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral in England had written to Leonard Bernstein. He wanted to commission a work for the Southern Cathedrals Festival (held at Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester Cathedrals). It was not the first time that Rev. Hussey had commissioned a new work of art. As Dean of Chichester Cathedral and in his previous post as vicar of St. Matthew’s, Northampton he had commissioned choral works by Britten and Finzi as well as stained-glass windows by Chagall and Madonna and Child by Henry Moore.  Hussey had some ideas what he wanted from Bernstein:

The sort of thing that we had in mind was perhaps, say, a setting of Psalm 2, or some part of it, either unaccompanied or accompanied by orchestra or organ, or both

In a letter in August 1964 Hussey also shared with Bernstein his hopes how the music should sound like:

many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music“.

Bernstein agreed quickly after Hussey’s first letter in December 1963 to write something for the festival, but it took more than a year and the abandonment of the musical The Skin of our Teeth for the project to become clearer.

In February 1965 Bernstein suggested to Hussey that he would set a suite of psalms or selected verses from psalms under the a general title like Psalms of Youth. He wanted the music to be “all very forthright, songful, rhythmical, youthful“. The only reservation Bernstein had was that he wanted to set the psalms in the original Hebrew. Bernstein was aware that this would make the preparation more difficult and he was not sure whether there were any ecclesiastical difficulties about singing in Hebrew in an Anglican cathedral. Hussey replied quickly and confirmed that the language would not constitute any problems. Only three month later in May 1965 Bernstein confirmed that the work was finished. He changed the title to Chichester Psalms, because he had the impression that “Youth” in the title would indicate an easy work which the Chichester Psalms were not.

3. The Chichester Psalms consist of three movements. In each movement Bernstein set one complete psalm and one or more verses of another complementary psalm, “by way of contrast or amplification“.

a) The work starts with a setting of Psalm 108, verse 2 (Awake, psaltery and harp:
I will rouse the dawn!
). Bernstein describes it as a chorale setting “evocating praise”. This introduction is a wake-up call and an invitation to the following dance like scherzo. Bernstein sets the full Psalm 100 (Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands) in a 7/4 meter. The music illustrates the text and the whole setting is a “wild and joyful dance“. Bernstein used in this first movement music he had originally composed for the abandoned musical The Skin of Our Teeth.

b) The second movement starts with a complete setting of Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd). The soloist is accompanied by a harp and the whole atmosphere is calm and pastoral. Also the lyrical theme of this movement is taken from The Skin of Our Teeth.  After a few bars the soloist is joined by the sopranos and altos who take up the lyrical melody. This mood is savagely interrupted by the men with a “threat of war and violence“. Hussey got in this movement exactly what he had asked for. Bernstein set verses 1 – 4 of Psalm 2 (Why do the nations rage) which Hussey had suggested in his very first letter. He got also his “hint of West Side Story”, because Bernstein used music he had written for the prologue of the West Side Story, but which he had cut in the end. It is a fascinating thought that the music which is now sung by the men to the text “Lamah rag’shu goyim / Ul’umim yeh’gu rik?” (Why do the nations rage / And the people imagine a vain thing?) was originally conceived for a Manhattan street gang singing Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics “Mix – make a mass of ’em! Make the sons of bitches pay”. The movement ends in an unresolved way.

c) The third movement sets Psalm 131 in its entirety and in the coda Psalm 133, verse 1.  Bernstein described this movement in a letter to Hussey as follows:

Begins with an orchestral prelude based on the opening chorale, whose assertive harmonies have now turned to painful ones. There is a crisis; the tension is suddenly relieved, and the choir enters humbly and peacefully singing Ps. 131 complete, in what is almost a popular song (although in 10/4 time!). It is something like a love-duet between the men and the boys. In this atmosphere of humility, there is a final chorale coda (Ps. 133, v. 1)  – a prayer for peace“.

Bernstein used also for the main 10/4 theme in this third movement music he had written earlier (a sketch headed “Wartime Duet?”).

4. Even though the Chichester Psalms was a commission for the festival in Chichester, the work was first performed in New York (on 15 July 1965, Philharmonic Hall). Bernstein conducted a programme of his own music and was asked to include the Chichester Psalms. The first performance in England took place two weeks later on 31 July 1965 at Chichester Cathedral. The choirs of Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester Cathedral and the Philomusica of London were conducted by John Birch. Leonard Bernstein and his family went to Sussex for the UK premiere of the work.

The Chichester Psalms was generally very well received. Hussey conveyed to Bernstein also the gratitude of the Bishop of Chichester who said he could imagine “David dancing before the ark”. Less enthusiastic was the young composer John Adams who was in his early 20s. He wrote an angry letter to Bernstein. He asked him why Bernstein had decided to turn his back on new music and included the provocative question “What about Boulez?”. To Adams’ astonishment Bernstein replied to him and explained that one can only write what “one hears within one”. For Bernstein this was at that point in time tonal music.

The Chichester Psalms became quickly part of the choral repertoire. Significant performances of the work conducted by Bernstein took place in 1973 and 1989. In 1973 he conducted the Chichester Psalms at a concert for the Pope which was televised all over Europe. In 1989 Bernstein conducted the work in Warsaw at a concert which marked the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.

5. I want to end this blog post with an excerpt from a poem Bernstein wrote about his sabbatical year for the New York Times. It includes a witty and the same time touching description of his Chichester Psalms:

These psalms are a simple and modest affair
Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square
Certain to sicken a stout John Cager
With its tonics and triads in E flat major
But there it stands- the result of my pondering
Two long months of avant-garde wandering
My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet
And he stands on his own two tonal feet


One thought on “Bernstein: Chichester Psalms – Hebrew psalms with a “hint of West Side Story”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.