Bernstein in an Age of Anxiety: Part 3, Chichester Psalms

Bernstein in an Age of Anxiety: Part 3, Chichester Psalms

This is the third of four parts examining the legacy of Leonard Bernstein and why so many performing arts organizations are celebrating the centennial of his birth during the 2017/18 season. They were originally written for The Washington Chorus in support of their November 8th concert at the Kennedy Center, where they'll be performing Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast


"Skin is stalled. Life, this agonizing November, is a tooth with its skin stripped off. I don’t know what I’m writing. I don’t even know what I’m not writing... I can’t get over Kennedy or Marc. Life is a tooth without a skin.”"  -- Leonard Bernstein, 1964

West Side Story will likely forever be Leonard Bernstein’s most popular work, and justifiably so, but Chichester Psalms gives listeners a deep look into its composer’s soul through its music and the words Bernstein chose for the singers.

We owe Chichester Psalms to a somewhat plucky request from Dr. Walter Hussey, the Dean of the Cathedral of Chichester in Sussex, England, who wrote to Bernstein in 1963 and asked him if the church could have a new work for its 1965 music festival. It wasn’t as great an imposition on Bernstein as it might sound -- Hussey was a well-known champion of the arts, and the festival brought together choirs from Chichester, Winchester, and Salisbury --  three of England’s greatest. In agreeing to the request, Bernstein was also joining the company of Marc Chagall, W.H. Auden, Henry Moore, and Benjamin Britten, all of whom were artists Hussey had previously engaged to creates works for the Cathedral.

Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein during rehearsal for the New York City Ballet production ofDybbuk, 1980. Photograph by Martha Swope. From The New York Public Library.

At the time Bernstein was in a deep funk. He was in the midst of his sabbatical from the New York Philharmonic and trying to create a new theatrical work with Jerome Robbins based on Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. It wasn’t going as planned, and Bernstein was also still disturbed by Kennedy’s assassination, the murder of his friend Marc Blitzstein, and deeply troubled by current political events at home and in the Middle East.

Hussey was hoping Bernstein would set Psalm 2 to music that had a musical kinship with West Side Story. He got it, and much more -- Bernstein delivered what he called “a suite of Psalms, or selected verses from Psalms,” originally titled Psalms of Youth. Composed after "Kaddish," his third symphony (written in memory of Kennedy), Bernstein again chose a Hebrew text. However, while "Kaddish" sounds like despair and anguish, Chichester Psalms is full of hope and a sense of community. It acknowledges the strife of the times, but calls for unity, and in a quietly profound way recognizes how individuals gain strength and peace by being having faith and being part of God’s community.

Anxiety: 1964

As listeners and readers, we can look at both the text and music of Chichester Psalms and see it as a response to the turbulence in American life during the mid-sixties following Kennedy’s assassination, the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights marches and protests, Israel’s unease with its neighbors and the formation of the PLO. Of course none of those issues are named in Bernstein’s text, but the Psalms he selected are relevant to those problems and offer solace and solutions for them.

Regardless of which side of the political divide you stand on, few Americans would disagree that we are currently more divided than we have been at any point since the height of the Vietnam war, and that we are, once again, in an age of deep anxiety. Now, as then, Chichester Psalms speaks to us with a message showing us the way forward.

Anxiety: 2017

Bernstein used verses from Psalms 100 and 108 in the first movement, 2 and 23 and in the second, and 131 and 133 in the third. Note the numerical symmetry, a nod to Jewish numerology that’s consistent with the themes of the movement. In Judaism, the number one indicates the divinity and wholeness of God; two represents the tablets of the covenant; three represents completeness, stability, and the patriarchs. Thematically, the text follows, and the work functions as a kind of musical allegory.

The first movement begins with a rousing, somewhat harsh bell, followed by verse 2 of Psalm 108, which has the chorus telling us in no uncertain terms it is time to wake up: “ Awake, psaltery and harp: I will rouse the dawn!”

Next is the complete Psalm 100, a song of joy and praise, sung by the entire choir:

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.

The second movement begins with a lone male voice, “David,” sung either by a male child or countertenor. Bernstein shifts the perspective here from collective worship to individual, beginning with Psalm 23. Then suddenly the tenors and basses interrupt with the first four verses of Psalm 2, disrupting the individual’s private contemplation with their questions and proclamations. It’s as if the men came barging in and are turning everything upside down. Leave it to the women to make it right, as the sopranos enter and return to Psalm 23. Then, once the sopranos have restored harmony, they turn it over to David once more. The music in this movement for the men was originally composed for West Side Story, and its hectic pace is easily imagined as originating as an argument between the Sharks and the Jets.

There is no escaping a sense of strife at the beginning of the third movement, as if after having shown us life in the community and the home, the narrator now looks at the nation and is dismayed by what he or she is witnessing. But suddenly there’s a break, and the music slowly develops  toward a glorious, and obviously heavenly climax, first with individual voices, and eventually the entire choir. Hope triumphs over despair as the work concludes with these words from the first verse of Psalm 133:

Behold how good and how pleasant it is
For brethren to dwell together in unity.

It’s powerful, beautiful music, whether one hears it from a sacred or secular perspective.