Leonard Bernstein was one of America’s most eclectic composers and musicians. Pianist, conductor, writer lecturer, classical composer, Broadway songwriter: all combine in describing this amazing man. One of his friends noted “Lenny is doomed to success!”
In 1964 he was given a sabbatical from the New York Philharmonic, and he decided “to use that year only to compose…And I wrote a lot of music, twelve-tone music and avant-garde music of various kinds, and a lot of it was very good, and I threw it all away.” One of his intentions was to use this time to write a Broadway Musical based on the Skin of our Teeth by Thorton Wilder, but this was not completed
“In that same year, Bernstein was commissioned by the Very Rev Walter Hussey of the Cathedral of Chichester to write something for their annual Grand Music Festival which included three cathedrals: Winchester, Salisbury, and Chichester, a collaboration dating from the seventeenth century. His request mentioned:” I think many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of ‘West Side Story’ about the music…” In fact, Reverend Hussey did get a bit of Broadway: six of the seven songs derived from “The Skin of our Teeth” and the seventh came from a piece planned, and later discarded, for West Side Story titled “Mix.” Bernstein described the outcome, saying “And what I came out with at the end of the year was a piece called Chichester Psalms which is simple and tonal and tuneful and as pure B-flat as any piece you can think of…Because that was what I honestly wished to write.” In his sabbatical year, Chichester Psalms was the composer’s only completed work.
The New York Times quoted Bernstein’s witty summation:
“For hours on end, I brooded and mused
On materiae musicae, used and abused
On aspects of unconventionality
Over the death in our time of tonality…
Pieces for nattering, clucking sopranos
With squadrons of vibraphones, fleets of pianos
Played with forearms, the fists and the palms
And then I came up with the 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 is 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.”
Philosophically, his Chichester Psalms reflects on man’s closeness to God. At first it was written for an all male chorus, but later changed to mixed chorus. The language used is Hebrew, and Bernstein noted that he “could only think of these Psalms in the original Hebrew.” Each movement declaims one full Psalm and an extract from another, the smaller quote, Bernstein explained, “included a complementary psalm by way of contrast or amplification.”. The composer reflected in a 1965 interview; “I think the Psalms are like an infantile version of Kaddish. They are very simple, very tonal, very direct, almost babyish in some ways, and therefore it stands perilously on the brink of being sentimental if wrongly performed.”
The work opens with a choral-orchestral introduction, marked Maestoso ma energico, circulating around a five note motif. “Awake, psaltery and harp! I will arouse the dawn!” from Psalm 57 raises the curtain. The main body of the movement focuses on Psalm 100, presented in a jaunty 7/4 meter, animating the message to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands.” The music is peppy, accessible, and even uses bongo drums!
Bernstein’s second movement opens with a boy soprano (or countertenor) accompanied by harp, singing a recitative –like statement of Psalm 23 (with a few blue notes in the accompaniment.) He is followed by paired sopranos in an imitative setting, continuing the serenity. Suddenly, a bustling allegro feroce introduced violently by men’s voices summoning Psalm 2 inquires, “Why do the nations rage?” Finally, the high voice comes back to complete Psalm 23 and the initial tranquility returns. But the turbulence remains a strong memory.
A third movement opens with references to the opening motif from the first movement, now cast in a symphonic instrumental prelude. The music moves on to reflect on Psalms 131 and 133. “Lord Lord, my heart is not haughty” is presented in a rocking, gentle setting. Some cappella (without accompaniment) section for chorus from Psalm 133 “Behold how good” closes with a prayer for peace, sealed by a quiet orchestral Amen.
© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017