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|Choral composition by Leonard Bernstein|
Score of the beginning, Boosey & Hawkes edition
|Occasion||1965 Southern Cathedrals Festival at Chichester Cathedral|
|Text||Psalms 100, 108, 2, 23, 131, 133|
|Performed||15 July 1965 New York City:|
Chichester Psalms is a choral work by Leonard Bernstein for boy treble or countertenor, solo quartet, choir and orchestra (3 trumpets in B♭, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion [5 players], 2 harps, and strings). A reduction written by the composer pared down the orchestral performance forces to organ, one harp, and percussion.
Bernstein stated explicitly in his writing that the part for countertenor may be sung by either a countertenor or a boy soprano, but never by a woman. This was to reinforce the liturgical meaning of the passage sung, perhaps to suggest that the 23rd Psalm, a "Psalm of David" from the Hebrew Bible, was to be heard as if sung by the boy David himself. The text was arranged by Bernstein from the psalms in the original Hebrew. Part 1 uses Psalms 100 and 108, Part 2 uses 2 and 23 and Part 3 uses 131 and 133.
The work was commissioned for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals Festival at Chichester Cathedral by the cathedral's organist, John Birch, and the Dean, Walter Hussey. However, the world premiere took place in the Philharmonic Hall, New York on July 15, 1965 with the composer conducting, followed by the performance in the Chichester Festival on July 31, conducted by John Birch.
The first performance in London took place on June 10 1966 in the Duke's Hall of the Royal Academy of Music. Conducted by Roy Wales and performed by the London Academic Orchestra and London Student Chorale, it was paired with the Britten Cantata Academica.
Chichester Psalms was Bernstein's first composition after his 1963 Third Symphony (Kaddish). They are his two most overtly Jewish works. While both works have a chorus singing texts in Hebrew, the Kaddish Symphony has been described as a work often at the edge of despair, while Chichester Psalms is affirmative and at times serene.
The Psalms and the first movement in particular are noted for the difficulty they pose for the performers. For example, the opening (see illustration) is extraordinarily difficult for the choral tenors, owing to the unusually wide vocal range, rhythmic complexity, and the consistent presence of strange and difficult-to-maintain parallel 7ths between the tenor and bass parts. (The interval of a seventh figures prominently throughout the piece due to its numerological importance in the Judeo-Christian tradition; the first movement is written in the unusual meter of 7/4.)
The Chichester Psalms significantly features the harp; the full orchestral version requires two intricate harp parts. Bernstein completed the harp parts before composing the accompanying orchestral and choral parts, thus granting the harpists a pivotal role in realizing the music. In rehearsals, Bernstein is noted to have requested that the harpists play through the piece before the rest of the orchestra to emphasize the importance of the harp's role.
Despite the work's difficulty, it is occasionally performed as an anthem in services of choral Evensong in the most musical Anglican cathedrals. The soloist in the second movement is thus very often a treble.
Psalm 108, vs. 2 (in KJV; vs. 3 in Hebrew)
עוּרָה, הַנֵּבֶל וְכִנּוֹר;
Urah, hanevel, v'chinor!
Awake, psaltery and harp:
The introduction (presented in the score as part of movement one) begins gathering energy. Word painting is used in that the dissonant 7ths present in every chord sound like clanging bells, indicating that we are being told to awaken in a deep and profound way. In the first measure, Bernstein also introduces a leitmotif in the soprano and alto parts consisting of a descending perfect fourth, ascending minor seventh, and descending perfect fifth. The motif is also found with the seventh inverted as a descending major second. The significance of the passage is unknown to the editor, except that it conjures up images of tuning the harp and psaltery (especially the use of perfect fourths and fifths). This leitmotif is found elsewhere in the work, including the end of the first movement ("Ki tov Adonai," m. 109-116), the third movement prelude, and in the soprano part of the final a cappella section of movement three ("Hineh mah tov," m.60), with a haunting reintroduction of the material in the harp on unison G's during the "Amen" of m. 64.
הָרִיעוּ לַיהוָה, כָּל־הָאָרֶץ.
Hari'u l'Adonai kol ha'arets.
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands.
The first movement is in a joyous 7
4 meter, sung in a festive fashion, as is implored in the first verse of the psalm. Its last words, "Ki tov Adonai," recall the 7th interval presented as the main theme in the introduction. The rhythm is essentially a 4
4 meter but the last half beat is missing giving the feeling of a rushed energy in which impatiently the last half beat is skipped in order to hurry to the next measure.
"David" and sopranos (Psalm 23)
The second movement begins with the psalm of David set in a conventional meter (3/4) with a tranquil melody, sung by the boy treble (or countertenor), and repeated by the soprano voices in the chorus. This is abruptly interrupted by the orchestra and the low, rumbling sounds (again word painting) of the men's voices singing psalm 2 (also notably featured in Handel's Messiah). This is gradually overpowered by the soprano voices (with the direction—at measure 102 in the vocal score only—"blissfully unaware of threat") with David serenely reaffirming the second portion of psalm 23. However, the last measures of the movement contain notes which recall the interrupting section, symbolizing mankind's unending struggle with conflict and faith.
The music for the beginning of the second movement is taken from sketches from Bernstein's unfinished The Skin of Our Teeth. The men's theme was adapted from material cut from West Side Story.
The third movement begins with a conflicted and busy instrumental prelude which recapitulates the chords and melody from the introduction; then suddenly it breaks into the gentle chorale set in a rolling 10
4 meter (subdivided as 2+3+2+3
4) which recalls desert palms swaying in the breeze.
Psalm 133, vs. 1
Hineh mah tov,
Behold how good,
The finale comes in from the third movement without interruption. The principal motifs from the introduction return here to unify the work and create a sense of returning to the beginning, but here the motifs are sung pianississimo, and greatly extended in length. Particularly luminous harmonies eventually give way to a unison note on the last syllable of the text—another example of word painting, since the final Hebrew word, Yaḥad, means "together" or, more precisely, "as one." This same note is that on which the choir then sings the amen, while one muted trumpet plays the opening motif one last time and the orchestra, too, ends on a unison G, with a tiny hint of a Picardy third.
- Webster, Peter (2017). Church and patronage in 20th century Britain : Walter Hussey and the arts. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 189–198. ISBN 9781137369093. OCLC 1012344270.