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Chichester Psalms (1965)

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) Photo by Jack Mitchell CC BY-SA 4.0,

“I spent almost the whole year writing 12-tone music and even more experimental stuff ... 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 which is the most accessible, B-flat majorish tonal piece I’ve ever written."

Leonard Bernstein, during a 1977 press conference

Leonard Bernstein had intended to spend his 1965 sabbatical finishing a theatrical score based on Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, but that project had permanently stalled. He described himself in a letter to a friend as "a composer without a project."

But there was an earlier letter from the Very Rev. Walter Hussey, Dean of the Cathedral of Chichester, inquiring whether Bernstein might write a psalm setting that the combined choirs of Chichester, Winchester, and Salisbury might perform at their annual festival. (Chichester would host the festival in 1965.) Hussey was a well-known arts advocate working to close the gap between the church and the arts. He had commissioned Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb for the 50th anniversary of St. Matthew’s in Northampton when he was vicar there, as well as work from Marc Chagall, W.H. Auden, Henry Moore, Gerald Finzi and others.

Perhaps a setting of Psalm 2 (“Why do the nations rage?”), Hussey suggested. Bernstein proposed a suite of psalms, to which Hussey happily agreed, and the work was underway.

Chichester Psalms would be Bernstein’s second major work with vocal parts in Hebrew. His Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish,” 1963), written in memory of President John F. Kennedy, reflected how deeply the assassination had affected him, an expression of anguish and despair. Chichester Psalms would be different: positive, affirming, hopeful, and in a Bernstein idiom. (Hussey had mentioned in passing that a flavor of West Side Story would be welcome. The men’s verse from Psalm 2 in the second movement of Chichester Psalms turned out to be music that Bernstein had written for, but not included, in West Side Story. Bernstein incorporated sketches from The Skin of Our Teeth project in the setting of Psalm 23.)

The work touches six psalms. Each of the three movements presents one psalm in its entirety, with verses from one other psalm for contrast or to insert an idea.

The opening movement, for example, presents the entire Psalm 100 — “Make a joyful noise to the Lord”—but not before a loud, dissonant, rousing verse from Psalm 108 commands the audience’s attention and introduces the entire work: “Urah, hanevel, v’chinor! A-irah shahar!” (“Awake, psaltery and harp! I will rouse the dawn!”)

The second movement, the most theatrical, conjures the shepherd boy David, whose harp and music provided the only effective therapy for King Saul’s periodic fits of rage. The harp has a primary role in the movement, and Bernstein adds a composer’s note that the solo passages must be sung by a boy or a counter-tenor (though in practice, this part is often sung by a woman.) The pure treble voice (Bernstein specifies “senza sentimentalita” — without sentimentality) intones the first four verses of Psalm 23, joined by the women’s voices at “Gam ki eilech b’gei tsalmavet” (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”)

A loud interruption by the men — “Lamah?” (“Why?”) — demands to know, in the words of Psalm 2, why the nations rage and conspire against the Lord’s anointed, a question also asked and not answered in Handel’s Messiah. The men continue with their question but begin to fade as Psalm 23 resumes, “Ta’aroch l’fanai shulchan” (“Thou preparest a table before me.”) Bernstein asks the women to be “blissfully unaware of threat” as they and the treble present the final verses of the psalm, and he has the women conclude the movement by restating the opening phrase “Adonai ro-i, lo ehsar” (“The Lord is my shepherd.”)

The third movement sets Psalm 131 in its entirety, with themes not of resignation but of calm and confident peace. “Surely I have calmed and quieted myself as a child that is weaned of his mother. My soul is even as a weaned child.” The work, which began with an attention-grabbing insertion from Psalm 108, now ends with a familiar and reassuring mantra from Psalm 133: “Hineh mah tov umah nayim, shevet ahim gam yahad” (“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”) The Hebrew yahad—“together” or “as one”—completes the psalm verse, and the chorus moves together to a long, quiet, unison Amen.

Bernstein wrote Chichester Psalms for full orchestra and substantial choral forces. With Rev. Hussey’s agreement, he conducted the world premiere in New York’s Philharmonic Hall on July 15, 1965, about two weeks before the work was presented at the Chichester Festival. Bernstein himself created the version being performed by the Providence Singers on November 9 and 10: chorus, solo voice, organ, harp, and percussion.


Chichester Psalms

I. Psalm 108:2 and Psalm 100

Psalm 108:2

Urah, hanevel, v’chinor! A-irah shahar!

Psalm 100

Hariu l’Adonai kol haarets. Iv’du et Adonai b’simha. Bo-u l’fanav bir’nanah. D’u ki Adonai Hu Elohim. Hu asanu, v’lo anahnu. Amo v’tson mar’ito. Bo-u sh’arav b’todah, Hatseirotav bit’hilah, Hodu lo, bar’chu sh’mo. Ki tov Adonai, l’olam has’do, V’ad dor vador emunato.

II. Psalm 23 and Psalm 2:1-4

Psalm 23:1-4

Adonai ro-i, lo ehsar. Bin’ot deshe yarbitseini, Al mei m’nuhot y’nahaleini, Naf’shi y’shovev, Yan’heini b’ma’aglei tsedek, L’ma’an sh’mo. Gam ki eilech B’gei tsalmavet, Lo ira ra, Ki Atah imadi. Shiv’t’cha umishan’techa Hemah y’nahamuni.

Psalm 2:1-4

Lamah rag’shu goyim Ul’umim yeh’gu rik? Yit’yats’vu malchei erets, V’roznim nos’du yahad Al Adonai v’al m’shiho. N’natkah et mos’roteimo, Yoshev bashamayim Yis’hak, Adonai Yil’ag lamo!

Psalm 23:5-6

Ta’aroch l’fanai shulchan Neged tsor’rai Dishanta vashemen roshi Cosi r’vayah. Ach tov vahesed Yird’funi kol y’mei hayai V’shav’ti b’veit Adonai L’orech yamim.

III. Psalm 131 and Psalm 133:1

Psalm 131

Adonai, Adonai, Lo gavah libi, V’lo ramu einai, V’lo hilachti Big’dolot uv’niflaot Mimeni. Im lo shiviti V’domam’ti, Naf’shi k’gamul alei imo, Kagamul alai naf’shi. Yahel Yis’rael el Adonai Me’atah v’ad olam.

Psalm 133:1 Hineh mah tov, Umah nayim, Shevet ahim Gam yahad.

I. Psalm 108:2 and Psalm 100 Psalm 108:2

Awake, psaltery and harp! I will rouse the dawn!

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness. Come before his presence with singing. Know ye that the Lord, He is God. He that hath made us, and not we ourselves. We are His people and the sheep of His pasture. Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, And into His courts with praise. Be thankful unto Him, and bless His name. For the Lord is good, His mercy is everlasting, And His truth endureth to all generations.

​II. Psalm 23 and Psalm 2:1-4

Psalm 23:1-4

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the still waters, He restoreth my soul, He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness, For His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk Through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, For Thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff They comfort me.

Psalm 2:1-4

Why do the nations rage, And the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, And the rulers take counsel together Against the Lord and against His anointed, Saying, let us break their bands asunder And cast away their cords from us. He that sitteth in the heavens Shall laugh, and the Lord Shall have them in derision!

Psalm 23:5-6 Thou preparest a table before me In the presence of mine enemies, Thou annointest my head with oil, My cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy Shall follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.

III. Psalm 131 and Psalm 133:1

Psalm 131

Lord, Lord, My heart is not haughty, Nor mine eyes lofty, Neither do I exercise myself In great matters or in things Too wonderful for me to understand. Surely I have calmed And quieted myself, As a child that is weaned of his mother, My soul is even as a weaned child. Let Israel hope in the Lord From henceforth and forever.

Psalm 133:1 Behold how good, And how pleasant it is, For brethren to dwell Together in unity.

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