Chichester Psalms - Leonard Bernstein (1918 - 1990)

Leonard Bernstein’s outstanding musical talent was evident from his student days, prompting a witty friend to remark, “Lenny is doomed to success!” His prodigious gifts as composer, conductor, teacher, and pianist were equally divided between jazz, the musical theatre and the concert-hall. As a composer he is mostly remembered for the vivid scores he wrote for West Side Story, Candide and a number of other Broadway productions, but he also wrote a significant amount of music for the concert-hall, including three symphonies. The article below gives the background to the Chichester Psalms, its influences and its structure.

Bernstein's style is based upon dramatic juxtapositions; lively rhythms with asymmetrical meters, surprising accent schemes, and speech rhythms in vocal music; melodic invention based upon wide interval; interest in program music; and motivic development. What makes his works both masterful and thoroughly American is the fluidity with which he moves between concert music and various vernacular musics, including jazz, blues, and the Broadway idiom. He did not learn these styles as an outsider, as Copland did jazz and blues. Bernstein played jazz and blues as a young musician, and wrote in the Broadway style as an adult.

Of the many of Bernstein's works that illustrate his eclectic genius, Chichester Psalms is a felicitous example in which he used a wide variety of music to help bring a text alive. The eighteen-minute piece has proven popular because of its tunefulness, dance-like rhythms, and carefully-wrought form. Although he nutured grander compositional plans, Chichester Psalms was written during Bernstein's 1964-65 sabbatical leave from the New York Philharmonic. Along with choreographer Jerome Robbins and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Bernstein had acquired rights to make a musical play of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. They worked for six months, but nothing resulted, to Bernstein's great disappointment.

Chichester Psalms was Bernstein's only completed work during the sabbatical. The commission came from Dr. William Hussey, dean of Chichester Cathedral, which had regular music festivals with choirs from Winchester and Salisbury Cathedrals. Hussey described available choral and instrumental fources to Bernstein in a letter, and noted that "many of us would be delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music." Bernstein's inclusion in Chichester Psalms of music removed from West Side Story and the aborted The Skin of Our Teeth lent the work a Broadway sound. Bernstein admitted this to Hussey in a letter in May 1965: "It is quite popular in feeling . . . and it has an old-fashined sweetness along with its more violent moments."

During this time period, Bernstein made a survey of contemporary compositional methods, an action that moved him back to writing more tonally, and Chichester Psalms is harmonically one of his simplest works. Some segments even correspond to common-practice period tonality. The most dissonant passages are the openings of the first and third movements, which include added-tone triads, a sound familiar to anyone who knows twentieth-century American concert music. Bernstein admitted the work's tonal simplicity, describing it in his poetic sabbatical report to The New York Times: "The 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 E-flat major."

In his letter to Hussey, Bernstein encapsulated the textual structure of Chichester Psalms: "[E]ach movement contains one complete psalm plus one or more verses from another complementary psalm by way of contrast or amplification." The first movement opens with Psalm 108: 2, and then includes all of Psalm 100. Movement two sets all of Psalm 23 with Psalm 2: 1-4 serving as contrast. The finale opens with all of Psalm 131 and concludes with Psalm 133: 1. Texts are sung in Hebrew. Like many of Bernstein's works, Chichester Psalms includes dramatic juxtapositions based upon text, especially in the second movement, as will be shown below.

The opening chorale sets the text "Awake, psaltery and harp! I will rouse the dawn! from Psalm 108. It is marked "Maestro ma energico" and includes one of Bernstein's typically angular melodic lines as a melodic cell. It is harmonized with added tone chords and set to declamatory rhythms in che choir. The faster orchestral interjections are also based on the melodic cell, stated first in B-flat major in the soprano and alto lines in measures 1-2 and carrying on what might be a blues note or modal reference, an A-flat on the penultimate note. Subsequent statements in other keys also include the lowered seventh.

The chorale leads into the "allegro molto" in 7/4, a jaunty segment that sets all of Psalm 100: "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands." It is jazzy and commercial, in a popular vein, as Bernstein mentioned in his letter to Hussey. Measures of this segment are similar to the theme song from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Flintstones. When one considers the text, however, the reference makes sense. Psalm 100 concludes with the phrase, "And His truth endureth to all generations." This is sprightly music from a composer whose search for faith was trumpeted in a number of his works. Here he speaks to present generations using a contemporary and accessible musical style. Another vernacular influence in the movement are the three bongo parts in measure 50, demonstrating Bernstein's enduring love for Latin percussion.

The second movement is the set's most theatrical conception, with the peace of Psalm 23 interrupted by Psalm 2's angry 'Why do the nations rage." The ideas are combined in the third section. Burton reports that the otherwordly opening melody was originally written with Betty Comden and Adolph Green for The Skin of Our Teeth as the song "Spring will Come Again." The first phrase is quite angular. The three words with more than one syllable in this phrase are each set with minor leaps. The ascending minor sixth between measures 4 and 5 demonstrates the importance of bold leaps. It is balanced by a descending minor seventh, which raises the expectation for yet another leap, satisfied by the octave leap into measure 9. The descent to the d" that concludes the phrase changes the harmony to a seventh chord, resolved deceptively in the next phrase, opening in F# minor. The major melodic features in the second phrase are the c-naturals" in measures 12 and 16, blues notes. Bernstein could have written a C# here and not have changed the melody's appeal, but clearly he wanted the distinctly American blues reference.

The music originally from the "Prologue" of West Side Story forms the central section of this movement. It is marked "Allegro feroce," but is metrically more regular and less dissonant than the "Prologue." Indeed, the melody that the males start to sing in measure 85 is a march, possibly showing more influence from Prokofiev or Shostakovich than American sources. The two main ideas of the movement are combined starting in measure 102, with blues melodic references remaining in the Psalm 23 melody.

Burton was amazed that Bernstein found Psalm texts that fit his earlier music so well: "By a combination of significant coincidence, minor miracle, and sheer good luck, he found appropriate texts to match the rhythms of Comden and Green's Broadway-oriented lyrics." Considering that Bernstein "managed" to find these texts among the most famous passages in all of the Psalms, it is clear that rewriting took place to make the texts fit.

Vernacular elements are less important in the finale than in the first two movements. The opening segment is based on the cell from the first movement, but this passage, also chorale-like and homorhythmic, is softer in dynamic level and more dissonant with considerable use of bitonality. In measure 10, material is recalled from the opening of the second movement (measures 18-21), softening the chorale's bite and preparing the 10/4 melody that starts in measure 20, an extended setting of Psalm 131. This meter is subdivided into two 5/4 measures in almost every detail, except for the paired quarter notes that sometimes accompany the melody, the middle pair tied across the two halves of each measure. One might speculate that Bernstein conceived the setting from the opening two words.

"Adonai," meaning "Lord," when stated twice, easily lends itself to Bernstein's setting, with the leap of a perfect fifth between words, and then the final syllable settling on the long note. This melody could easily have appeared in one of Bernstein's Broadway shows, but it hardly ranks as a major moment of vernacular influence, with rich chromaticism not unlike a late nineteenth-century melody by Mahler, Richard Strauss, or another composer.

Following the five statements of the theme in 10/4 (the third by instruments only) that set Psalm 131's peaceful text, Bernstein recalls the opening of the first movement in a final unaccompanied passage. The text states: "Behold how good,/ And pleasant it is,/ For brethren to dwell/ Together in unity." It is one of the sublime moments in his output, demonstrating his capacity for capturing a text's meaning in his music. IT is also a hushed chorale at the end of a religious work, heard as well in Mass. As the last note is held in the choir, the harp plays the piece's opening cell once again, this time changing the last interval to an ascending major sixth for the final resolution to G major.

Although brief, Chichester Psalms is an effective introduction to Bernstein's output. A number of his common stylistic traits -- especially angular melodies, assymmetric meters, dramatic juxtapositions, and motivic development -- are present. The work includes both music written from the inspiration of art music and music actually first written for a Broadway show. Vernacular models also include jazz, blues, and commercial music, always used in service of the text. For Bernstein eclecticism was not a crutch, but a liberating agent that allowed him compositional flexibility. It is this flexibility that makes Bernstein a successful dramatic composer, both for the stage and in concert music.

Paul Laird, University of Kansas (1999) Leonard Bernstein: Eclecticism and Vernacular Elements in Chichester Psalms.
The Society for American Music Bulletin, Volume XXV, no. 1 (Spring 1999).

 

Page created 23 November, 2008 by Ian Downie