Leonard Bernstein was commissioned to write his Chichester Psalms
in 1965 by the then Organist and Dean of Chichester Cathedral, John Birch and Walter Hussey. (John Birch succeeded Thalben-Ball as Director of Music of the Temple Church in 1982.) With a brilliant clarion call, Bernstein launches them: ‘Awake, psaltery and harp: I will rouse the dawn’. Thus the party begins, with the most festive of settings of Psalm 100, better known to all mattins-goers as the Jubilate. The orchestration of organ, harp and percussion, the most frequently-discussed parley of instruments in the Psalms, is a stroke of genius, though inevitably poses challenges of coordination and balance to the conductor. The second movement is the well-beloved Psalm 23 (‘The Lord is my shepherd’), interrupted dramatically and aggressively by portions of Psalm 2 (‘Why do the nations rage so furiously together, and the people imagine a vain thing?’), preoccupations as relevant today as in 1965 when the work was written, or 1741 when Handel set the same text as part of his Messiah
. The main theme, given memorably to a treble soloist (as ‘David’), actually originated in an unfinished musical, The Skin of our Teeth
, and the central section’s outburst was unused material from West Side Story
: recycling at its best. The last movement continues the lyrical vein, being a setting of Psalm 131, a song of repose in the Lord. In the coda, which brings back the opening motifs of the piece, Bernstein makes absolutely plain his agenda with the words ‘Behold how good and how pleasant it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity.’ These pacifist sentiments surface in a number of other works by Bernstein, including the Kaddish Symphony
and the Mass. In notes he made while writing the Mass, Bernstein wrote, ‘You scream for peace, you won’t get it that way…only peacefulness can engender peace’. The Chichester Psalms
certainly echo this theme in their own way.
from notes by William Whitehead © 2011