Bernstein: Chichester Psalms

Chichester Psalms

LEONARD BERNSTEIN
BORN: August 25, 1918. Lawrence, Massachusetts
DIED: October 14, 1990. New York City

The San Francisco Symphony is celebrating the centennial of his birth during the 2017-18 season.

COMPOSED: Spring of 1965 (completed by early May) on commission from the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, Sussex, for the 1965 Chichester Festival, and dedicated it “with gratitude, to Dr. Cyril Solomon”

WORLD PREMIERE: July 15, 1965. Boy alto John Bogart and the Camerata Singers (Abraham Kaplan, director), with the composer conducting the New York Philharmonic at Philharmonic Hall (now renamed David Geffen Hall), Lincoln Center, New York City

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—December 1970. Boy sopranos Jeremy Renton and Gary Levy, the Stanford University Chorus, soprano Shigemi Matsumoto, mezzo-soprano Margery Tede, baritone Stephen Janzen, and tenor Philip Booth, with Seiji Ozawa conducting. MOST RECENT—May 2010. Boy soprano Zachary Weisberg, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, director), and vocal soloists Cindy Wyvill, Heidi L. Waterman, Thomas Busse, and Michael Taylor

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, a large percussion section (5 players, comprising chime, suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, bass drum, snare drum, xylophone, glockenspiel, tambourine, triangle, wood block, three bongos, whip, rasp, temple blocks), 2 harps, strings, boy soprano or countertenor soloist, a solo vocal quartet (soprano, contralto, tenor, bass), and a 4-part chorus

DURATION: About 18 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Throughout his career, Leonard Bernstein struggled to balance the competing demands of his multifarious gifts as a composer, conductor, pianist, media personality, and all-round celebrity. Time for composition was potentially the most endangered in the mix that packed his date-book, and he had to take special care to see that it didn’t get entirely crowded out by his day-to-day obligations as a performer. That he left as large an oeuvre as he did is a testament to his astonishing musical fluency and to his embrace of a wide variety of American styles.

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Bernstein was schooled at Harvard (where he graduated in 1939) and, following advanced work at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, returned to his home state. There he worked at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and was taken under the wing of Serge Koussevitzky, musical director of the Boston Symphony. In 1943, he moved to New York, the city with which he would become most famously associated. While working as assistant conductor to Arthur Rodzinski, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein stepped in at short notice—on November 14, 1943—to substitute for an ailing conductor (Bruno Walter) at a Philharmonic concert and, as they say, the rest is history. In 1958, he began a decade-long tenure as that orchestra’s music director.

By that time, he was already making a mark as the first conductor to truly harness the power of the rapidly developing medium of television. A generation of music lovers received some of their earliest indoctrination through his Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic, a series of fifty-three broadcasts that began in his first season with the New York Philharmonic. (He continued to oversee the series until he handed it off in 1972 to Michael Tilson Thomas, then the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony.) But Bernstein had already established a presence on television several years before he inaugurated the Young People’s Concerts. In November 1954, he presented his first special on Omnibus, a Sunday-night show that ran from 1952 through 1961, originally on the CBS network, then on ABC and finally NBC. Sponsored by the Ford Foundation and hosted by Alistair Cooke, it exemplified the medium’s highest aspirations, purveying insightful programming on topics in the arts, sciences, and humanities. Bernstein presented seven Omnibus installments on a variety of musical topics. His first, using Beethoven’s sketches for his Fifth Symphony to explore the composer’s decision-making process, became a classic. Bernstein included its script in his 1959 essay collection The Joy of Music, along with those of his other Omnibus topics, which included American musical theater, the innovations of Stravinsky, and the brilliance of Bach.

THE MUSIC  Bernstein’s productivity as a composer slowed to a trickle during his eleven years as music director of the New York Philharmonic. During that time, he managed to complete almost nothing apart from his Kaddish, Symphony No. 3 (1963) and his Chichester Psalms (1965), which together add up to almost exactly one hour of music. In December 1963, he 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 1965: “The Chichester Organist and Choirmaster, John Birch, and I, are very anxious to have written some piece of music which the combined choirs could sing at the Festival to be held in Chichester in August, 1965, and we wondered if you would be willing to write something for us. I do realize how enormously busy you are, 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.”

The timing was providential but not completely fortuitous; Dr. Hussey had been encouraged to contact Bernstein by a physician-friend in common, Dr. Cyril Solomon (the work’s dedicatee), who was aware that Bernstein was planning a “composing sabbatical.” 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 written for, but then 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 nations rage, and people utter vanities?”), 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 much of the other thematic material from an uncompleted The Skin of Our Teeth musical, King David’s exultations being found to scan quite 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 friend and fellow-composer Lukas Foss. Foss explained in an interview: “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. Movement One opens in a rather Coplandesque spirit, infused with rhythmic punch and wide melodic intervals. This yields to music that is sparkling and snazzy, dancing giddily in 7/4 meter, its effect strikingly reminiscent of material in 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 soloist sings the famous 23rd Psalm to a harp accompaniment, just as the original psalmist presumably would have done. Bernstein also sanctioned that this vocal part, with its bluesy overtones, might be sung by a countertenor. 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.

Movement Three begins in a spirit of rugged Americanism against which is juxtaposed a somber allusion (in the deep strings) 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

Portions of this essay appeared earlier in the program books of the New York Philharmonic and the Edinburgh International Festival and are used with permission.

More About the Music
Recordings: Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic, Camerata Singers, and boy alto John Paul Bogart (Sony) |  Gerard Schwarz conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, Liverpool Cathedral Choir, and boy treble Michael Small (Naxos)

Reading: Leonard Bernstein, by Humphrey Burton (Doubleday)  |  Leonard Bernstein: A Life, by Merle Secrest (Bloomsbury)  |  Working with Bernstein, by Jack Gottlieb (Amadeus)  |  The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone (Yale)  |  Leonard Bernstein: American Original, edited by Burton Bernstein and Barbara Haws (Collins)  |  Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination, by Misha Berson (Applause Theatre and Cinema Books)  |  West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical, edited by Elizabeth A. Wells (Scarecrow Press) 

(September 2017)