|I. Psalm 108 vs. 2; Psalm 100, entire||03:33|
|II. Psalm 23, entire; Psalm w, vs. 1-4||05:36|
|III. Psalm 131, entire; Psalm 133, vs. 1||09:14|
Just as Bernstein’s third symphony has provided much of the musically interested general public with its initiation into Judaic liturgy through its focus on the Aramaic text of the kaddish, his Chichester Psalms remains for much of the choral world its principal if not sole encounter with Hebrew choral music. Indeed, for the hundreds of amateur as well as professional and university choruses throughout the world that have delighted in singing this work, and for non-Jews among audiences from America, Europe, and the British Isles to the Far East, Chichester Psalms has often constituted their exclusive experience with the Hebrew language. Notwithstanding the recently proliferated but far more circumscribed attraction among early music ensembles and aficionados to the early-17th-century Hebrew liturgical settings by the Italian-Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, no choral work in Hebrew apart from Chichester Psalms can be said to have attained the status of “standard repertoire” within the Western canon.
In addition to its recurrent renditions simply as a choral work on its own purely artistic merits, Chichester Psalms is often programmed with the explicit aim of illustrating a nexus between Christian and Judaic liturgical traditions that flows from their common reliance on the biblical Book of Psalms. From the earliest days of the Christian Church, the Psalms played a central role in the formation and development of its liturgies; and ancient psalmody (the logogenic, formulaic manner of intoning the Psalms, as well as other similar texts), which had become an established and formalized part of the Levitical Temple ritual in Jerusalem, figured prominently in the musical development of the early Church and its chant traditions—albeit probably indirectly through transmission via synagogues in surrounding Near Eastern communities. In medieval Christianity, apart from basic elements of the Creation story in Genesis, the Book of Psalms was the most familiar part of the Hebrew Bible. Illuminated manuscripts of that era (Psalters, Bibles, breviaries, and Books of Hours) frequently included accompanying illustrations relating to Psalms and Psalm-singing—for example, King David, who is reputed by legend and tradition to have composed many of the Psalms, playing on various musical instruments. The Book of Psalms was also among the first biblical books to be translated into vernacular languages in Europe and England (an Anglo-Saxon version appeared as early as the 8th century). From the early 16th century on, the Book of Psalms engendered many important English literary and creative adaptations and translations, including metrical versions that remain in use.
Almost immediately following its publication, Chichester Psalms also became one of the most obvious works to which choruses turn whenever they seek to include a substantial piece of contemporary “Jewish”—viz., Judaically related—music on concert programs.
The Cathedral of Chichester, in Sussex, England, after which Bernstein titled this work, is the seat of a cherished sacred music legacy that dates to the tenure of its honored organist and composer, Thomas Weelkes (ca. 1575–1623), one of the leading avatars of the early-17th-century English madrigal genre and a pioneer in the development of Anglican Church music in its formative period. Each year since 1960 the Cathedral of Chichester has collaborated with its neighboring cathedrals in Winchester and Salisbury in the production of a summer music festival, though the tradition of the annual meeting of the Cathedral Choirs actually dates to 1904.
In 1965, the Dean of Chichester Cathedral, the Very Reverend Dr. Walter Hussey, commissioned Bernstein to compose a work based on the Psalms for that summer’s Southern Cathedrals Festival. Dr. Hussey, who has been called “the last great patron of art in the Church of England,” was well known as a visionary and enlightened champion of the arts in general. First in his capacity as Vicar of St. Matthew’s Church, in Northampton, and then as the Dean of Chichester, he also commissioned works for the Church by such serious composers, painters, sculptors, and poets as Benjamin Britten, William Walton, Marc Chagall, W. H. Auden, Graham Sutherland, and Henry Moore. As he later recalled, the seed for Dr. Hussey’s approach to Bernstein had been planted in his imagination the previous year by the Cathedral’s organist and choirmaster, John Birch, who had recommended inviting a composer to write a choral piece for the Festival in a “slightly popular” yet still manifestly artistic style. That almost immediately prompted Dr. Hussey to think of the composer of West Side Story, whom he had met only briefly in New York in the early 1960s; John Birch concurred.
In his initial correspondence with Bernstein, Dr. Hussey suggested a setting of Psalm 2. But Bernstein then proposed a “suite of Psalms, or selected verses from Psalms,” with the tentative title Psalms of Youth—in view of his conception of the music as “very forthright, songful, rhythmic, and youthful.” He subsequently abandoned that title in favor of the present one. As he commented in a letter to Dr. Hussey, the music turned out to be far more difficult to perform than the word “youth” might suggest—notwithstanding the fact that it requires a professional caliber boy or children’s choir.
Dr. Hussey was apparently concerned lest Bernstein feel restricted by the ecclesiastical parameters of the festival or the awesomeness of the Cathedral venue.
In an effort to emphasize that he was not seeking a more narrowly liturgical piece in the traditional sense, nor a conservative work of more typically reverential High Church aesthetics, he encouraged Bernstein to write freely, without inhibitions. He even expressed the wish that the music might incorporate some of the composer’s Broadway side, telling Bernstein, “Many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music.”
Although it may seem now that Bernstein’s celebrity and international visibility in the twin worlds of theatrical and concert music made him a natural candidate for so important a commission, this invitation may also be viewed as adventurous, if not courageous, for its time. In retrospect, however—on another plane—it might not have been so far-fetched (even if unprecedented) for the Dean to commission a transparently and avowedly Jewish composer—whose most recent work had been based not only on Judaic liturgy in its original language but on a personalized Jewish theological interpretation with Hassidic foundations—to write for an Anglican cathedral setting. Nor should the very positive response there to its Judaic parameters have been completely unexpected.
This event was preceded by a history of English curiosity about Jews and Judaism dating to the Puritan era of the Commonwealth and Protectorate in the 17th century, with some antecedents in much earlier ecclesiastical scholarship—although motivations were neither always completely benign nor unalloyed. More recently—despite alternating and ambivalent attitudes toward Jews that could range from outright anti-Semitism to, in some assessments, a curiously English brand of philosemitism—ancient and medieval Judaic history in particular appears to have ignited episodes of interest among some 19th-century English intellectual, literary, artistic, and even religious circles. Much of that interest could be viewed in relation to less than benevolent agendas. Still, on at least some levels, it could also transcend geopolitical or evangelical considerations.
Theological as well as ceremonial and patrimonial aspects of Jewish antiquity seem to have had a special appeal at various periods. A few vestiges of that fascination can still be detected in the coronation ceremony of the English monarch—who, of course, is also the supreme head of the Church of England. A fair number of Christian English scholars, especially since the 18th century, have produced academic works concerning Judaic texts. And romanticized visual depictions of the Second Temple and other scenes of ancient Jerusalem were fashionable during the Victorian era—for example, among Pre-Raphaelite expressions.
The Church of England has witnessed recurrent strains of preoccupation with the ancient Temple rituals and with Hebraic antecedents of Christian liturgy. These considerations often provided perceived areas of common ground between the Church and its Judaic roots, which could offer a sense of historical underpinning as well as theological continuum and legitimacy. And there still remain the perceived, even if mythical and now more poetic than real, links to the biblical Davidic monarchical line of succession—manifested, for example, in the anointing rite at coronations. The Book of Psalms, however it might be interpreted artistically by a 20th-century Jewish composer who, in the case of Bernstein, might be expected to reflect some degree of Jewish sensibility in his work, represented—more so than any other liturgical or biblical text—just such common as well as neutral ground. Indeed, Dr. Hussey is reported to have told Bernstein that he was especially excited that the Psalms “came into being at all as a statement of praise that is ecumenical.”
Moreover, the sprouting ecumenical spirit of the mid-1960s was beginning to find its reflection in some Anglican Church circles, and the prospect of Psalm settings by the composer of the Kaddish Symphony probably seemed timely as well as perfectly appropriate to its more liberal elements. (Similar strains of receptivity to ecumenical considerations and Judaic roots could also be found—then, or shortly thereafter—in some progressive congregations within the American Episcopal Church, the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion. At New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, for example, the seat of the American Episcopate, regular worship services—even on Christmas eve—have included the pronouncement in its original biblical Hebrew of the Judaic monotheistic credo, sh’ma yisra’el...)
Once he had arrived at his artistic conception of a “Psalm suite,” Bernstein realized that he could “think of these Psalms only in the original Hebrew.” His concern over whether this would be considered appropriate for the Cathedral was immediately put to rest by Dr. Hussey. He organized diction and pronunciation coaching for the choirs by the Priest-vicar at Chichester, who had studied Hebrew. The premiere there of the original version, in the language of the Bible, was received enthusiastically, and Bernstein later published the work exclusively in Hebrew—i.e., without an alternative English text underlay. The Bishop of Chichester is said to have remarked that he had envisioned David dancing before the Lord—a reference to the account in II Samuel 6, wherein King David, following one of his military campaigns against the Philistines, has retrieved the Holy Ark from them and brought it back into Jerusalem with enormous joy and celebration, dancing without inhibitions “before the Lord with all his might.”
The offer of the Chichester commission came during Bernstein’s sabbatical year from the New York Philharmonic, just as he was in the throes of disappointment over the miscarriage of a project on which he had been working, a Broadway musical show based on Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth. “The wounds are still smarting,” he wrote to fellow American composer David Diamond in the beginning of 1965. “I am suddenly a composer without a project.” He thus welcomed the opportunity the Chichester commission provided, and he proceeded to compose the work in New York in the spring of that year. The result appears not only to have leaned melodically and rhythmically on its composer’s Broadway proclivities, but, as Dr. Hussey had assured him would be welcome, on actual moments of his earlier stage music. As Bernstein’s biographer Humphrey Burton and others familiar with Bernstein’s theatrical music have observed, the second movement contains, in the lower voices, an adaptation of a passage from the Prologue to West Side Story, which is heard now to the words of Psalm 2 (lama rag’shu goyim ul’umim yeh’gu rik?). And material derived from his recently shelved drafts and sketches for the aborted Skin of Our Teeth project was recycled and accommodated to Psalm verses in all three movements. Moreover, Burton demonstrated that Bernstein’s choice of specific Psalms and verses was informed by their potential adaptability to the rhythm and cadence of lyrics that had already been written for that musical show by the celebrated team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
As he did for the Kaddish Symphony, Calum MacDonald also furnished program notes for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic performance of Chichester Psalms in 2004. His apt comments are enlightening with regard to the musical progression of the work:
Each of the three movements contains the full text of one Psalm and an extract from another, but the relationship between the two texts, both in their meaning and in their musical treatment, is different each time. The work opens with an exhortation to praise the Lord: the mood is triumphal and authoritative, like a proclamation. This is the trigger for the main part of the movement, an ebulliently dancing (and in places jazzy) scherzo-like setting of Psalm 100, where the array of percussion is much to the fore in “making a joyful noise.”
The second movement begins with the boy soloist, accompanied by harp, serenely setting forth the opening lines of Psalm 23. As the Psalm is taken up by female voices, however, Bernstein has the male section of the chorus sing verses from Psalm 2 (“Why do nations assemble, and peoples plot ...”—a text familiar to British audiences through Handel’s Messiah) to much more angular and agitated music, in which the noise of the percussion takes on a sinister meaning. This contrasted music of peace and war proceeds in uneasy counterpoint throughout the rest of the second movement.
The final movement—which is also the longest—begins with a passionate and elegiac introduction for the strings. This leads into a warm, assuaging setting of Psalm 131, to a long and intensely memorable melody in 10/4 time, which is first cousin to the love-songs of Bernstein’s stage shows. Finally the chorus, unaccompanied, intones a verse from Psalm 133 as a vision of peace before the closing Amen.
The composer, reviewing his experiences of 1965 in humorous verse, wrote of the piece:
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.
Of the Chichester premiere itself, he noted:
July: To Chichester, en famille, to hear
My Psalms in the place for which they were written. Smitten...
In Chichester I heard angels sing.
Excerpted from “... And What I Did,” New York Times, Oct. 24, 1964
Bernstein offered his own assessment of the work upon its completion: “It has an old-fashioned sweetness along with its more violent moments,” he wrote to Dr. Hussey, also characterizing it in general as “popular in feeling.” Although that “popular feeling” seems to have triggered some negative critical response to the premiere at the Cathedral (one reviewer deemed it shallow and slick), for the critic writing in the London Sunday Times, the work showed Bernstein as a composer whose music was certainly consonant with the Cathedral setting and even with worship—a religious composer, in fact, “of the kind Luther must have had in mind when he grudged the devil all the good tunes.” Chichester Psalms soon became Bernstein’s most frequently sung choral work—one that rarely if ever fails to communicate its artistic message to its audience, but also one that choruses themselves adore.
The orchestration of Chichester Psalms calls for six brass (three trumpets and three trombones), two harps, a large percussion section, and strings. The original conception or “version”—in which form the work was given its premiere at Chichester Cathedral at the end of July 1965—is for a chorus exclusively of men and boys, with the boys’ voices on the soprano and alto lines. (This follows the German, or continental European choral tradition, rather than the established English Church format that calls typically for boys only on the soprano line with adult countertenors on the alto part.) Two weeks earlier, however, Bernstein conducted the actual world premiere at New York’s Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall), with the New York Philharmonic and the Camerata Singers—a mixed choir with women’s voices substituting for boys on the soprano and alto parts. Performances since then have been given in both formats. But Bernstein stipulated in a note to the published score that the long alto solo in the second movement, which is unsuited to the timbre of the female—and certainly an adult female—voice, must always be sung either by a boy (which is generally preferable) or a countertenor.
“I think the Psalms are like an infantile version of Kaddish,” Bernstein reflected in a 1965 interview shortly after the premiere. “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 present performance, with its judicious reserve that manages nonetheless to preserve the buoyancy and vibrancy of the music, would most certainly have assuaged Bernstein’s concern.
Sung in Hebrew
Awake, O nevel and kinor
I will wake the dawn.
Raise a shout for the Lord, all the earth; worship the Lord in gladness; come into His presence with shouts of joy.
Acknowledge that the Lord is God; He made us and we are His,
His people, the flock He tends.
Enter His gates with praise, His courts with acclamation.
Bless His name!
For the Lord is good; His steadfast love is eternal; His faithfulness is for all generations.
The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me to water in places of repose; He renews my life; He guides me in right paths as befits His name.
Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.
Why do nations assemble, and peoples plot vain things; kings of the earth take their stand, and regents intrigue together against the Lord and against His anointed?
“Let us break the cords of their yoke, shake off their ropes from us!”
He who is enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord mocks at them.
PSALM 23 (CONTINUED): 5–6
You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my drink is abundant.
Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for many long years.
O Lord, my heart is not proud nor my look haughty; I do not aspire to great things or to what is beyond me; but I have taught myself to be contented like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child am I in my mind.
O Israel, wait for the Lord now and forever.
How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together.
Performers: Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral Choir, Ian Tracey, chorusmaster; Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz, Conductor; Michael Small, Treble
Publisher: Universal Polygram International Publishing, Inc.
English translations from the JPS Tanakh (1999)