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The Oratorio Society of Virginia Michael Slon, Music Director

A Few Thoughts on Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms & 100 Years

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

In the fall of 1964, Leonard Bernstein began an unusual year-long sabbatical from his position as music director of the New York Philharmonic. The main goal was to write a new musical on Thornton Wilder’s apocalyptic play The Skin of Our Teeth, with the collaborators of his youth – Adolph Green and Betty Comden (with whom he wrote On the Town and Wonderful Town.) Jerome Robbins, who also collaborated on West Side Story, would direct.

Months into the project, Bernstein later reported in poetic form that the plan was scrapped and the collaborators:

went our several ways,
Still loving friends; but still there was the pain
Of seeing six months of work go down the drain.1

He wrote colleague David Diamond that he was "a composer without a project," but there was still one project on the table. Rev. Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England had commissioned a piece from Bernstein for the summer music festival jointly held each year by Chichester, Winchester, and Salisbury cathedrals. Never one "to let a good tune languish in a bottom drawer," as biographer Humphrey Burton wrote of him, Bernstein adapted his musical theatre sketches for the seven main themes in Chichester Psalms, fitting the Hebrew texts to pre-existing music. He even incorporated a discarded sketch for a rumble scene from West Side Story (not unlike Handel before him, who borrowed secular music for famous oratorio choruses such as "For unto us a child is born.") The result is one of Bernstein’s most engaging, lively concert works.

Set in three movements, each incorporating two different psalms, Chichester Psalms also stands in a broader context of Bernstein as social and musical commentator, and it is helpful for listeners to have some sense of this. Through a fair amount of his compositional career, he struggled with the "crisis of tonality" that resonated through the world of art music, wondering how his own musical voice related (or didn't) to the question of "whither music" in the 20th century. Moreover, he once stated that the work he had been writing all his life was about "the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith." In his earliest symphonies, and in Symphony no. 3 (Kaddish) – the piece he concluded immediately prior to Chichester Psalms – he addresses both of these questions. And in Mass, the piece he completed following the Psalms to open the Kennedy Center, he would continue to raise and attempt to resolve this perceived crisis of faith. Chichester Psalms offers a bit of détente on both fronts.

His daughter Jaime Bernstein said, "I have come to think that Kaddish and Chichester Psalms ought to be considered one work, for the latter piece is really a resolution of the conflicts so passionately articulated in the former." The Psalms represents a détente for Bernstein in the crisis of tonality. He seems at home writing major (or only slightly evaded major) triads, and tunes instead of tone rows. In his poetic sabbatical report, he unabashedly acknowledges this:

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 B-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.2

Regarding the crisis of faith, listeners should pay close attention to the middle movement, where the two halves of the choir divide — the women singing Psalm 23 "The Lord is my shepherd... Thou preparest a table before me / In the presence of mine enemies," above the men, who sing Psalm 2 in contrasting music, "Why do the nations rage!". The score says the women are: "blissfully unaware of threat," even as the two psalms present different messages. And while final resolution of this conflict doesn’t occur till the instrumental opening of movement III, through Chichester Psalms — unlike the theological questioning and hand—wringing of the Kaddish Symphony — Bernstein seems to advocate for a simpler, humbler faith in God and His goodness. Several years later, he would return to these questions for an intense deconstruction and re—affirmation of faith in his Mass.

As for Bernstein at 100 (he was born August 25th, 1918), I am reminded of several of Bernstein's own birthday salutes. He had a habit of honoring friends and mentors with birthday essays and pieces — friends including Aaron Copland, Stephen Sondheim, and Serge Koussevitzky. And he also saluted places and institutions, as when he wrote of Tanglewood (the summer home of the Boston Symphony, and one of America's premiere training grounds for young musicians), "Tanglewood fifty – impossible! But great ideas are forever new... The sharing of knowledge, the commitment to one's work, and the belief that in this mad world art and music have a healing presence – all are ideals part of the Tanglewood dream." And these same ideals flowed from Bernstein himself, throughout the artistic world. He believed music, including what we call "classical" or "art" music, was for everyone. It is encouraging to see how his enthusiastic influence continues to flourish, and it is well — as we perform and listen to his music — to revisit and remind ourselves of these ideals he proclaimed and upheld, themselves "forever new."

Happy Birthday Lenny!
Michael Slon (© 2018)

1Leonard Bernstein, “What I Thought . . . And What I Did,” reprinted in Findings, 238.
2Ibid, 240-241.