Leonard Bernstein
Chichester Psalms

Born: 25 August 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts
Died: 14 October 1990 in New York City

{Biography} {Chichester Psalms} {For Further Reading}


Is it possible for a musician to be too talented?  If so, Leonard Bernstein might qualify for that description.  A pianist good enough to perform concertos with major professional orchestras, a composer of several works safely ensconced in the repertoire (including one perfect masterpiece), one of the best of all modern conductors, and a born pedagogue to boot, Bernstein lived a life that careened among multiple strengths and passions.  The one that probably got the shortest shrift was that of composer.  That he was able to create what he did in a realm that rarely got his full attention is an astonishing tribute to his gifts. 

Bernstein’s parents were Ukrainian Jews who emigrated to the United States in the early twentieth century.  Leonard, born Louis (he changed his name as a teenager), was their first child.  He was creative, musical, handsome, clever and witty and good with languages, a “take-charge” extrovert who loved attention.  He kept all those characteristic throughout his life, and all were valuable in his conducting career. 

Bernstein was extremely close to his two younger siblings, and they all spoke an invented language called Rybernian (after Bernstein’s marriage, his wife and children spoke this as well).  I’m reminded here of the equally gifted twelfth-century composer Hildegard of Bingen, one of whose many creations was also a made-up language—interesting the outlets that exceptional creativity can find. 

Unlike their children, Bernstein’s parents did not get along, and their different takes on his talent were apparent.  His father, a successful businessman, wanted Bernstein to follow his footsteps and actively discouraged Bernstein’s passion for music; he didn’t see how it could lead to a viable career.  After Bernstein became famous, his father was asked why he’d been so unsupportive when his son was young.  The elder Bernstein famously responded “How could I know my son was going to grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?”  In contrast, Bernstein’s mother was very encouraging and always believed in his talent.  When neighbors complained about Bernstein’s incessant piano-playing, she retorted that “some day you’re going to pay to hear him!”  

Three key things happened when Bernstein was 14.  First, he attended his first symphony concert, a performance by the Boston Pops orchestra that included Ravel’s Bolero, which he loved (he had not yet heard Ravel’s own description of his work as “fifteen minutes of orchestration without music”).  Second, he began studying piano with Helen Coates, who was the first to recognize his impressive musical talent and who did her utmost to nurture his career (twelve years later she moved to New York to be Bernstein’s full-time secretary, a position she held almost nonstop until her death).  Third, and this was a very bad idea, he started smoking and remained a heavy smoker until his death.  While it is true that the harmful effects of smoking were not known in 1932, Bernstein suffered from asthma and also had a dust allergy, so avoiding the extra burden on his lungs should have been an obvious path to follow.  The only good thing about the asthma was that it made him 4F during World War II and kept him out of the Armed Forces. 

Bernstein received an excellent liberal arts education at the famous Boston Latin School, a school even older than Harvard for which admission was only through competitive exam.  For college he attended Harvard, at that time a heavily WASP-dominated all male school that maintained a strict 10% quota for Jews; not surprisingly, he encounted anti-semitism while there.  But he also made extremely important musical contacts during his undergraduate years.  He studied with Walter Piston, a leading composer of the time; he met Aaron Copland, eighteen years older, who became a lifelong friend and supporter; through Copland he met composers Virgil Thomson and Paul Bowles; he met composer William Schuman; and most important of all, he met the famous Greek conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos, who became a mentor and helped inspire Bernstein to pursue a career as a conductor. 

After receiving his B.A. in 1939, Bernstein was briefly at a loss for what to do next (I find it very reassuring that, like so many young people, even Leonard Bernstein felt adrift after graduating from college).  Partly at the urging of Aaron Copland, he applied for and was accepted at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (the Juilliard conducting class was full), where he was a rare student enrolled as both a conducting student and a piano student.  His teachers were the famous maestro Fritz Reiner for conducting, Isabelle Vengerova for piano, and the composer Randall Thompson for orchestration. 

Towards the end of his first year of study Mitropoulos contacted him with the plan of bringing Bernstein to Minneapolis (where Mitropoulos directed the orchestra) and having him serve as his apprentice, play concertos with the orchestra and orchestral piano parts as needed, and essentially learn the job of conductor from the bottom up.  To Bernstein’s disappointment, the plan fell through when those in charge learned that Bernstein was still a student.

But good things opened up almost immediately.  Bernstein spent the summer after his first year at Curtis at Tanglewood, recently established as a summer music school and connected with the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Tanglewood would play a major role in Bernstein’s life.  Here he studied with Serge Koussevitzky, the BSO’s conductor, who was to prove another mentor and important figure in Bernstein’s life.  Koussevitzky recognized Bernstein’s talent and, anticipating a professional career for his protegé, urged  him to change his name (he was not the only one to make this recommendation).  The name Bernstein was too obviously Jewish; Leonard Samuelovitch Burns was the suggested alternative (Bernstein’s father was named Sam; the new middle name would signify “son of Sam”).  Bernstein declined.  And speaking of names, Bernstein and everyone in his family pronounced their name BernSTINE, not BernSTEEN. 

After a second year at Curtis and a second summer at Tanglewood, Bernstein was once again at loose ends, but by 1942 he was Koussevitsky’s assistant at Tanglewood, and by 1943 he was assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic.  His job was to be prepared to substitute for the principal conductor, Artur Rodzinski, at a moment’s notice.  Fun fact: Rodzinski carried a loaded revolver in his back pocket when he conducted. 

Bernstein’s big break came in November 1943.  Rodzinksi was out of town, and the guest conductor for the concert on November 14 was Bruno Walter.  On November 13 Bernstein’s family happened to be in town, as Jennie Tourel was performing Bernstein’s song cycle I Hate Music in her Town Hall debut.  The recital and piece were a big success and Bernstein stayed up half the night partying. 

At 9:00 a.m. on the 14th, Bernstein received a phone call telling him that Walter was too ill to conduct (Bernstein had been warned on the 13th that this might be the case, but had not told anyone) and that he would be conducting that afternoon’s concert.  Which just happened to be one that would be broadcast live nationally.  Without any opportunity to rehearse with the orchestra.  No pressure. 

Bernstein’s family was thus present, Koussevitsky was listening in Boston, and Rodzinski drove back to town to catch the end of the concert, which consisted of Schumann’s Manfred Overture, Miklós Rózsa’s Theme, Variations, and Finale, Strauss’s Don Quixote (an especially difficult work to conduct), and the Prelude from Die Meistersinger.  Bernstein was brilliant, and a star was born. 

Isn’t that a great story?

For the next 14 years Bernstein was everyone’s favorite guest conductor, with the only orchestra he had complete control over being the ad hoc New York City Symphony Orchestra that was usually one step away from financial ruin; he held this part-time position between 1945 and 1947.  When he wasn’t racing around conducting on three continents (he was the first American to conduct at La Scala; his lifelong relationship with the Israel Philharmonic goes back to 1947), he was having his most fruitful years as a composer, writing his ballet Fancy Free (1944, choreographed by Jerome Robbins), the musical On the Town (1944), the song cycle La Bonne Cuisine (1947), his second symphony, the Age of Anxiety (in 1949, inspired by W.H. Auden; the first symphony, Jeremiah, came from 1942), the opera Trouble in Tahiti (1951), the musical Wonderful Town (1953), the film score On the Waterfront (1954, for Elia Kazan), the witty operetta Candide (1956), and of course his masterpiece, West Side Story (1957, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, choreography by Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Laurents.  Talk about talent!  But the music is best). 

In 1951 Bernstein also managed to get married to the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn, with whom he had three children.  She was seemingly ideal as a partner: she was musical and witty, understood the arts, was a sophisticated cosmopolitan who was good at languages, and so on.  But Bernstein was actually more attracted to men than women, so the marriage had a rocky start, a rocky end, and many bumpy patches along the way (between 1946 and 1951 they were engaged twice; Felicia broke off the first one after a year).  She was one of the very few people who had any influence over Bernstein’s flamboyant and often indiscreet personality, but she still (according to her eldest daughter) found herself murmuring “Tierra, trágame” (earth, swallow me) in situation after situation. 

When Koussevitsky had stepped down from the BSO in 1948, many (including Koussevitsky) had assumed that Bernstein would succeed him.  But the BSO board chose Charles Munch instead.  Bernstein did take over the orchestra and conducting posts at Tanglewood after Koussevitsky’s death in 1951, but only in 1957 did he get a formal orchestral affiliation when he was appointed joint principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic, sharing the post with Mitropoulos.  By the following year he was the one exclusively in charge. 

The Bernstein years at the New York Phil (1958–1969) are widely considered a very high point in that orchestra’s history.  Bernstein was the first American to hold the post of music director, and he rapidly proved himself a master at programming concerts and attracting audiences.  The orchestra toured and recorded frequently, and Bernstein’s championship of Mahler (he recorded the full symphonic cycle three times and programmed his work frequently) helped establish that composer in the orchestral canon.  He was a pioneer in using television as an educational tool, and his televised Young People’s Concerts (1958–1972) created a generation of music lovers.  But this immensely successful conducting gig took its toll on composition: Bernstein completed only two works during his time with the Philharmonic, his third symphony (Kaddish, 1963) and Chichester Psalms. 

When Bernstein finally stepped away from the Philharmonic in 1969, his successor was another composer/conductor, Pierre Boulez.  Quick—name one piece by Boulez!  If you were not a music major in college, you probably don’t know any of them, since Boulez was a member of the highest avant-garde in his compositional life and his pieces have accordingly not enjoyed much air time.  And his tendency to force-feed works of that ilk to the Philharmonic audience was not greatly appreciated.  But he was a spectacular conductor nonetheless.

After leaving the Philharmonic, Bernstein’s plan was to guest conduct and compose, but somehow the former was always encroaching on the latter.  And in some ways it is “easier” to conduct than compose.  That may sound crazy, since there’s nothing even remotely easy about conducting.  But conducting takes place in real time (as it were): rehearsals will happen whether you’re ready or not; concerts go on no matter what.  It’s the same reason most of my students prefer taking exams to writing papers: the exam is going to start and finish no matter how much or little you’ve studied; the paper will not come into existence unless you make it happen. 

Jamie Bernstein, the composer’s eldest daughter, has noted that the feedback from conducting—the ovations, the warmth of the crowd, the excitement—all provide a tangible sense of accomplishment and connection with others—catnip to an extrovert.  Composition is usually far more solitary, and it requires extended periods of time alone, as do most creative endeavors.  It’s not surprising that Bernstein loved writing for the theater so much, as it required collaboration with others, and constant give and take—not a solitary process at all. 

Bernstein did manage to write various pieces in the 22 years after he left the Philharmonic, including the work commissioned for the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center, his Mass (a mess); his bicentennial musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (a total pancake; it closed after seven performances); his vocal/orchestral Songfest (1977); the opera A Quiet Place (1983, the sequel to Trouble in Tahiti); and his Arias and Barcarolles (1988).  None of these is a repertory item, or at least not yet.  Perhaps the attention from the recent centennial year will change that. 

Most of the time he was the quintessential jet-setting conductor and teacher, racing from one gig to the next with recordings and videos all tangled up together.  He gave the prestigious Norton Lectures in Poetry at Harvard in 1973 (Harvard defines poetry broadly; Stravinsky was also a Norton lecturer), he established an especially close relationship with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, he started more than one Tanglewood-style music academy, and he spent far too many months on theater projects that never panned out.  He and Herbert von Karajan were probably the two most famous conductors alive, and Bernstein was easily the best-known American classical musician in the world.  And he was the one who conducted an international cohort of musicians in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Berlin in December 1989 after the Wall came down. 

Bernstein died less than two months after his 72nd birthday.  It’s amazing that he lasted as long as he did.  He smoked constantly, suffered from insomnia, burned his candle at both ends, and had plenty of male sexual partners (Felicia died in 1978) precisely when AIDS was ravaging the gay community.  According to all who knew him, though, music served as an eternal life-giving force; he fed on its energy again and again. 

If you think Bernstein’s life sounds like something out of a movie, you’re not alone.  Jake Gyllenhaal planned to star in a biopic about Bernstein called The American, but he’s now been scooped by Bradley Cooper.  The 6’ 1” Cooper will play the 5’ 8” composer in Bernstein, directed by Steven Spielberg.  That’s the movie that got the rights to use the actual music, pretty much undercutting anything Gyllenhaal wanted to do.  Stay tuned for further developments! 

Chichester Psalms

We owe the existence of Chichester Psalms to the charm and chutzpah of an Anglican priest.  In December 1963, the Very Reverend Walter Hussey (1909–1985), then Dean of Chichester Cathedral, contacted Bernstein about a possible choral work to be premiered at the summer 1965 choral festival that united the choirs of Chichester, Salisbury, and Winchester Cathedrals (the Southern Cathedrals Festival).  Bernstein did not know Hussey, but the two shared a mutual friend, Chuck Solomon.  He was Bernstein’s doctor, and he delivered the initial letter. 

Hussey was not your average Anglican ecclesiastic.  He had sophisticated tastes, firmly believed that worship was enhanced through the arts, and sought to increase this interaction by various means.  Over the years he had commissioned paintings, textiles, a sculpture of a Madonna and Child from Henry Moore, poetry from W.H. Auden and Normal Nicholson, and musical works from Benjamin Britten (Rejoice in the Lamb; Hussey actually contacted Britten first for the 1965 Chichester commission), Michael Tippett (Fanfare No. 1), Lennox Berkeley (Festival Anthem), Gerald Finzi (Lo, the Full, the Final Sacrifice), Edmund Rubbra (The Revival), William Walton (Chichester Service), and Malcolm Arnold (Laudate dominum)—a who’s who of contemporary British composers.  The famous Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad gave recitals for his congregation; the BBC Symphony Orchestra played for them as well.  Hussey also commissioned stained glass by Chagall for the 1965 Festival.  He was not always successful in his patronage, though: the “ones that got away” included Stravinsky as well as poets T.S. Eliot and John Betjeman. 

Bernstein sent a positive reply to Hussey’s request, but indicated that he might not have the work ready until 1966.  In correspondence over the next year (sometimes one-sided, as Bernstein did not always reply; Hussey was always charming, psychologically astute, and relentless), Hussey tactfully pushed for 1965, as afterwards it would be the turn of another cathedral to host the Festival.  Silence on Bernstein’s part presented obvious worries for Hussey, and then on 24 February 1965 Bernstein finally wrote that “I was on the verge of writing you a sad letter saying that I could not find in me the work for your Festival, when suddenly a conception occurred to me that I find exciting.  It would be a suite of Psalms, or selected verses from Psalms, and would have a general title like Psalms of Youth...."

What had happened was this.  In 1964–1965 Bernstein was on sabbatical from the New York Philharmonic in order to concentrate on composition.  The plan was to turn Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth into a musical, and Bernstein had spent months working on this in collaboration with others, with nary a thought towards Hussey’s commission.  Plans for the musical had collapsed, however, leaving Bernstein with nothing to show for months of work, until—voilà!—Bernstein realized that the Skin of Our Teeth music could be repurposed for Chichester. 

Hussey was doubtless relieved to find that there was going to be a work after all, but various changes and delays were ahead.  Hussey had suggested a setting of Psalm 2; Bernstein used a bit of that but mostly other psalms.  Bernstein wanted to use Hebrew texts; Hussey graciously indicated that there would be no ecclesiastical objections to that, merely noting the additional challenge to his singers (just so you know, the Hebrew in Chichester Psalms is Sephardic rather than Ashkenazic).  Bernstein decided that the premiere would be at a New York Philharmonic concert of his works a few weeks before the Chichester Festival (that one must have hurt, despite Bernstein’s assurances that the “real” premiere was Chichester, since they would use Bernstein’s preferred forces).  Bernstein changed the dedication from being exclusively for Hussey to (as he told Hussey) being for Hussey and Solomon, their mutual friend, yet the vocal score (at least) gives the dedication exclusively to Solomon.  More crucially, Bernstein was slow, slow, slow with getting the material over to England so that the singers and instrumentalists could actually learn their parts. 

But—and this is a huge but—Bernstein apparently wrote the work for free.  That’s right, free.  In his initial request Hussey wrote that “We would of course be only too pleased to pay a fee to the best of our resources,” but no specific amount was named, and no one has found any correspondence or business record documenting a fee.  So Hussey got a real gem of a work, really one of the staples of the twentieth-century choral repertoire; Bernstein eventually dropped the title Psalms of Youth in favor of Chichester Psalms; and Hussey could say that “I shall be tremendously proud for them to go around in the world bearing the name of Chichester."

The work premiered on 15 July 1965, with the New York Philharmonic and the Camerata Singers, a choir of mixed voices.  In late July Bernstein and his family headed to England, where Bernstein and Felicia stayed with Hussey.  The Festival performance at Chichester Cathedral was on July 31, with a choir of 46 boys (members of the choir schools of Chichester, Salisbury, and Winchester Cathedrals) and 29 professional male singers (8 male altos, 9 tenors, 12 basses).  The all-male choir was Bernstein’s compositional intention from the start, and thus his assurance to Hussey that his was the real premiere.  The orchestra was the professional string ensemble Philomusica of London, with additional instrumentalists.  While the orchestra was seriously under-rehearsed, the choirs acquitted themselves well, and Bernstein wrote to his secretary Helen Coates that “The Psalms went off well...somehow the glorious acoustics of Chichester Cathedral cushion everything so that even mistakes sound pretty.”

The Bernsteins and Hussey enjoyed each other’s company, gifts were exchanged, and Chichester Psalms has lived happily ever after. 

The three-movement structure of the work obviously echoes Stravinsky’s famous Symphony of Psalms, written in 1930 for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  But Stravinsky’s work is in Latin, each movement sets a single psalm, and the mood is overall much more serious than that of Chichester Psalms. 

The description that Bernstein sent to Hussey is as follows:

  1. Opens with a chorale (Ps. 108, vs. 3) evoking praise; and then swings into Ps. 100, complete, a wild and joyful dance, in the Davidic spirit.
  2. Consists mainly of Ps. 23 complete, featuring a boy solo and his harp, but interrupted savagely by the men with threats of war and violence (Ps. 2, vs. 1–4).  This movement ends in unresolved fashion, with both elements, faith and fear, interlocked.
  3. 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 boys.  In this atmosphere of humility, there is a final chorale coda.  (Ps. 133, vs. 1)—a prayer for peace. 

The work is written for an unusual set of performing forces: three trumpets, three trombones, two harps, five-part strings, and a full battery of percussion (glockenspiel, xylophone, chimes, triangle, wood block, temple block, tambourine, snare drum, 3 bongos, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, whip, rasp), plus four-part choir (either all men, as Bernstein preferred, or mixed choir) and a solo boy; Hussey had informed Bernstein that the Cathedral could not accommodate a full symphony orchestra.  The harps are an obvious reference to King David, the supposed author of all the psalms, as is the solo boy, since it was the youth David whose performances soothed the troubled King Saul.  The score also contains short SATB solo parts “which may be sung by individuals of the choir,” as Bernstein wrote.  Bernstein later provided a version with reduced scoring of organ, harp, and percussion, thus greatly expanding performing opportunities for the piece. 

Although the average choir rarely sings in Hebrew, the language was important to Bernstein.  It forms the basis for his Kaddish symphony of 1963, and he used it as well in a variety of earlier choral works.  Bernstein said that religious music was the biggest influence on him as a child, with the Friday night Sabbath services at his conservative synagogue of great importance.  Cantor, choir, and organ combined to perform works by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Verdi, and others, all provided with fresh texts in Hebrew.  Although Bernstein wrote few choral works overall, it’s certainly gratifying as a choral singer to learn how important choral compositions were to his musical formation. 

When we began rehearsing Chichester Psalms this past January, I was in the unusual position for a choral singer of having performed Kaddish but never having done Chichester Psalms.  The former was a lot of work but ultimately worthwhile.  The piece has an absolutely ghastly English narration written by Bernstein himself; the Hebrew sung text is that of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.  The choral/orchestral composition, which includes a part for boy choir, is divided into three large sections, with spiky dissonant lines in many places but also a meltingly beautiful soprano solo, sections of tonal cohesion, and a rollicking use of 7/4.  Thus, when I came to Chichester Psalms, it struck me forcibly as “Kaddish Lite”: less than half as long, but still using choral/orchestral texture, Hebrew texts, tripartite structure, dissonance moving to consonance, a gorgeous (boy) soprano melody, tonal resolution, significant use of 7/4.  Obviously the two works are different in many ways, but Kaddish was the work Bernstein finished immediately prior to Chichester Psalms.  Consciously or not, it must have influenced the later work. 

Chichester Psalms is an excellent sing and superbly written.  The initial impression is a bit off-putting—an opening sonority of dissonant minor seconds followed by a spiky vocal line with leaps of a seventh in soprano and alto, some chromaticism, and meter that changes with every full measure: 6/4, 3/4, 3/8, 5/4, 2/4, 5/8, 6/4, 2/4, 5/4.  This opening, which will return in various guises elsewhere in the work, is a remnant from The Skin of our Teeth music.  The text is the bit from Ps. 108, verse 2 (Bernstein used the Hebrew numbering of the psalms, which is different from the later Latin numbering): Awake psaltery and harp: I will rouse the dawn!  But once we’ve roused the dawn, the orchestra provides a quick intro to our joyful 7/4 dance (also taken from The Skin of Our Teeth) for the beautiful text of Ps. 100:

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands.
Serve the Lord with gladness.
Come before his presence with singing.
Know ye that the Lord, he is God.
It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.
We are his people and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter into his gates with thanksgiving,
And into his courts with praise.
Be thankful unto him, and bless his name.
For the Lord is good, his mercy is everlasting,
And his truth endureth to all generations. 

The whole piece (and certainly this movement) hits that sweet spot where we are initially challenged, but not so much that we can’t master things with some work.  And like all the best pieces, once we’ve gotten the lines down, the formerly tricky passages seem inevitable and exactly right—we can’t remember why they might have caused problems in the first place.  The unexpected melodic leaps soon melt into the hummable tunes they form part of; the constant repetition of melodic lines and phrases eases the way forward.  Bernstein is a master of the snappy rhythm, and his dissonances are often sprinkled lightly over otherwise consonant harmonies—the difficulties are all on the surface, not structural. 

In the opening movement, our dynamic fade at 85 leads to a short orchestral section; solo lines show up at 102, and the chorus re-enters at 109, where we sing, in slow motion, the same motive that began the entire piece.  The movement ends with the orchestral motive that introduced the 7/4 section, now transposed—the perfect ending. 

The second movement sets the text of another beloved psalm, probably the most famous of all: the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul.
He leadeth me in the path of righteousness,
For his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk
Through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
For thou art with me.
Thy rod and thy staff
They comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me
In the presence of mine enemies.
Thou anointest my head with oil.
My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy
Shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord

The psalm is begun by the boy solo, with his melody consisting of two sections separated by a fermata; the music is from The Skin of Our Teeth.  The second section, which begins at the meno mosso on m. 18, is especially poignant, and you have to be a real Scrooge not to be melted by it.  Why is it so effective?  Well, the really killer part (to me at least) begins with the “Adonai” in m. 26.  We’re in A major; the E the soloist sings is the melodic “V”, the dominant, the “sol” in solfege (we’re on a dominant triad), and it sets us up to return home to the tonic, A, “do.” But that sneaky Bernstein delays the homecoming and takes the singer up to B instead of the expected (wanted, longed for, yearned for, needed) A, so we are momentarily thrown before we get to the desired A.  The soloist noodles around a bit between A, B, C# (do, re, mi) until we get that bluesy C natural at m. 30 before coming back to A.

Then the women come in and get to sing both sections of the initial melody, separated again by a fermata (m. 47).  The boy solo joins us at m. 45.  Very simple structurally, very effective.

And then, wham!  Tenors and basses enter with the first four verses of Psalm 2 (the one Hussey originally asked for):

Why do the nations rage,
And why do the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together
Against the Lord and against his anointed
Saying, let us break their bonds asunder
And cast away their cords from us.
He that sitteth in the heavens
Shall laugh, and the Lord
Shall have them in derision!

This very different text receives very different treatment.  We are wrenched from A major to A minor, from slow triple to fast cut time, from a lyrical melody to choppy bursts of repeated pitches interspersed with short rests.  The text can be tongue-twisting, but what great lines!  Originally this was the opening song for the Jets in West Side Story; it got dropped before the show made it to Broadway. 

And then Bernstein brings back the women, “blissfully unaware of threat,” singing our earlier music and our Ps. 23 text on top of the men and their Ps. 2 text—yowza!  When we all finally fade away at m. 119, the boy soprano is back with the “B” section melody; when it’s his turn to fade at m. 133, women return with a fragment of B.  As we hold our long final tonic pitch A, the orchestra underneath us is playing the men’s Ps. 2 material to close the movement.  Brilliant.

Movement 3, begun attaca, gives us once more the opening motive of the entire piece, now in a purely orchestral rendition and more dissonant than before.  It’s interrupted briefly by the initial B motive of the second movement (m. 10), then things get spiky again, and then they smooth down as we glide into G major and Psalm 131:

Lord, Lord,
My heart is not haughty,
Nor mine eyes lofty.
Neither do I exercise myself
In great matters of in things
Too wonderful for me.
Surely I have calmed and quieted myself.
As a child that is weaned of his mother,
My soul is even as a weaned child.
Let Israel hope in the Lord
From henceforth and forever.

We’re in a gently rocking 10/4 (5 + 5) with one lovely phrase after another, trading back and forth between men and women; this was originally a duet that Bernstein wrote in the 1940s.  After our big cadence at m. 54, soloists take over again to conclude the psalm text.

But the movement isn’t done.  We have a bit of one more psalm to sing, the first verse of Psalm 133:

Behold how good,
And how pleasant it is,
For brethren to dwell
Together in unity. 

In hushed voices we sing these words to the same music that began the entire work, but now smoothed out into a peaceful chorale.  We are unaccompanied.  Only when we begin the final octave Amen does the orchestra come back in (that agonizing instant when we discover whether we’ve kept our pitch nice and high or have shamefully gone flat).  But if we succeeded in staying in tune—well, what a lovely moment!  And underneath it all the first trumpet and harp play Chichester Psalms’ opening motive one last time, pianissimo and dolce. 

This is an amazing work.  Off the top of my head, it is probably the last choral/orchestral piece to enter the standard repertory (John Adams’s Harmonium, from 1981, is a masterpiece, but its challenges mean that it doesn’t get performed nearly as often as it should).  Leonard Bernstein gave us this wonderful work, but as I said before, we owe it as well to Dean Hussey.  He has long since moved on to that great Cathedral in the Sky, but he was the macher, the midwife to this work.  Both he and Bernstein should be very proud, for the list of performances given in Paul Laird’s book on this piece suggests that at any time, in any month of the year, someone, somewhere, is preparing a performance of Chichester Psalms.  I’m very glad that right now it is us.

For Further Reading

You’ve got your choice when it comes to biographies of Bernstein.  The most substantial of the many out there is by Humphrey Burton (Leonard Bernstein, 1994).  Burton was Bernstein’s main film and television director for 20 years; he had cooperation from the family but retained editorial independence.  Jamie Bernstein (eldest daughter) has a laugh-out-loud memoir, Famous Father Girl, that’s an enjoyable read.  Though both authors obviously knew Bernstein extremely well, each acknowledges Bernstein’s many flaws while still recognizing and honoring his achievements.  In contrast, Joan Peyser’s biography is a dishy tell-all filled with inaccuracies; it’s loathed by family and friends.  Bernstein purposely never read it and broke off friendships with those who had gossiped to Peyser.

And there’s a whole book on Chichester Psalms, by Paul R. Laird, complete with the Hussey/Bernstein correspondence, lists of inappropriate Hebrew stresses, recording recommendations, and so on.  Very useful.

April 2019