As we continue our series on the music of Leonard Bernstein, our music for this week is the Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein. The composer conducts the Boys and Men’s Choir of the Poznan Philharmonic.
Chichester Psalms was written in 1965 for boy soprano, solo quartet, choir, and orchestra. It is essentially a musical setting of Psalms 2, 23, 100, 108, 131, and 133 that was commissioned by the Revered Walter Hussey of the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England.
As with many of his other compsitions, Bernstein wrote extensively about his motivation for composing the Psalms.
“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 the forearms, the fists and the palms —
And then I came up with the Chichester Psalms.
… My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet.
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.”
Unlike most of Bernstein’s compositions during this time period, the Psalms are not atonal. In his own words, the piece is “the most accessible, B-flat majorish tonal piece I’ve ever written.” Bernstein was also adamant that the Psalms be sung in the original Hebrew and with the rhythmic style of the Hebrew musical tradition. Some have observed that by writing a Christian mass for a Christian church in the Hebrew language and Hebrew style, Bernstein was implicitly advocating for a peaceful reconciliation between the two faiths.
Here’s a quick rundown of things to listen for:
- First movement: This movement is based on Psalm 108 and opens with a victorious “Awake, psaltery and harp!” Interestingly, this movement is 7/4 meter, which, if you are a musician, you will know is an almost unheard-of meter.
- Second movement: listen for the boy soprano solo that is based on Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) and is accompanied by the harp (perhaps symbolic of the shepherd-psalmist King David?) Later in the movement, you’ll hear a quick snippet of a West Side Story melody that Bernstein threw in just for fun.
- Third movement: notice how Bernstein ends the piece with less and less orchestral involvement, eventually giving way to a subdued chorus without instrumentation.