Chichester Psalms (1965)
Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1918, and died in New York on October 14, 1990. The first performance of Chichester Psalms took place at Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) in New York on July 15, 1965, with the composer conducting the New York Philharmonic, the Camerata Singers, and John Bogart, alto.
Approximate performance time is nineteen minutes.
During the 1964-5 season, Leonard Bernstein took a sabbatical from his duties as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, a post he assumed in 1958. Bernstein hoped that the sabbatical would afford him a greater opportunity to devote his energies to composition. Bernstein’s major venture was a collaboration with Betty Comden and Adolph Green—a musical based upon Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. However, by January of 1965, it was clear that the project would not come to fruition. During the sabbatical period, Bernstein also experimented with “12-tone music and even more experimental stuff. I was happy that all these new sounds were coming out; but after about six months of work I threw it all away. It just wasn’t my music. It wasn’t honest. The end result was the CHICHESTER PSALMS...”
In 1964, Bernstein received a commission from Dr. Walter Hussey, Dean of the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England, to compose a new work for its summer music festival. Bernstein originally intended to call the work Psalms of Youth, but finally decided upon Chichester Psalms, because the piece “is far too difficult.” Bernstein composed his Chichester Psalms in Manhattan during the spring of 1965, completing the work on May 7. The Cathedral graciously allowed Bernstein to conduct the premiere not at Chichester, but at a July 15 New York Philharmonic concert. That performance featured a mixed choir (male and female voices). On July 31, the first performance of the composer’s preferred original version—with a male choir—took place in Chichester.
In describing the structure of the Chichester Psalms, the composer observed, “The work is in three movements, lasting about eighteen and a half minutes, and each movement contains one complete psalm plus one or more verses from another complementary psalm by way of contrast or amplification.”
Bernstein characterized his Chichester Psalms as “the most accessible, B-flat-majorish tonal piece I’ve ever written. If one is trying to find optimism versus pessimism in my music, the closest musical equivalent is tonality versus non-tonality.” And in a poem written at the conclusion of Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic sabbatical, he offered an affectionate tribute to his new work:
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 and E-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.