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Bernstein: “Chichester Psalms”

The composer and his associates write:

Every summer the Cathedral of Chichester, in Sussex, England, joins choral forces with its neighbors, Winchester and Salisbury to produce a music festival. (Chichester has a great musical tradition, going back to its famed organist-composer of the early 17th century, Thomas Weelkes.) For its 1965 Festival, Leonard Bernstein was commissioned to write these Psalms, which were completed on May 7, 1965. The world premiere took place on July 15, 1965, in Philharmonic Hall, New York, with the composer conducting the New York Philharmonic, with the Camerata Singers, Abraham Kaplan, conductor, and with John Bogart, alto. The first performance of the original version, as conceived by Bernstein for an all-male choir, was heard on July 31, 1965, at Chichester.”

The scoring is for chorus with boy soprano, trumpets, trombones, percussion, harps, and strings; the work lasts for about 20 minutes. A musical motto B-flat – F – E-flat – A-flat – B-flat dominates the work, heard in the opening bars of the work and again at the very end.

This is Bernstein’s first major work after his despairing Kaddish Symphony (No. 3) of 1963. His compositional life had by this time grown tortured indeed: he longed to be taken seriously as a serious composer but had neither the time to do it well nor the inclination to adopt the serialism that was at the root of the best composition of his time and place. His sabbatical from conducting the New York Philharmonic amounted to a struggle with the twelve-tone system, and the Chichester Psalms represent its abandonment in favor of the lyrical, tonal idiom that had come so naturally to him from the beginning. What is splendid here is the selection of some of the most beautiful texts in all literature (both the 23rd and 100th Psalms, complete, for instance), the simple elegance of the formal strategies (note the subduing of raging nations by a return of the 23rd Psalm), the palette of colors Bernstein achieves from his smallish aggregation. Enjoy, too, the prevailing meters in 5 and 7, especially with the billowing, gentle ecstatic 7/4s at the end: “Behold how pleasant it is to swell together in unity.”

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