Multifariously talented and successful as composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, and celebrity, Leonard Bernstein was pulled many different ways throughout his career. His appointment as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1957 (as co-Music Director with Dimitri Mitropoulos in the first season) brought an end to a string of important pieces for the theater and film – including Fancy Free, On the Town, Trouble in Tahiti, Wonderful Town, On the Waterfront, Candide, and West Side Story – but it also created new opportunities and inspired new directions. The major works composed during his eventful tenure as Music Director (until 1969, when he became Laureate Conductor) were two vocal-orchestral pieces on sacred Hebrew texts, the dark and doubting “Kaddish” Symphony No. 3 and the much lighter, affirmative Chichester Psalms.
Commissioned for the Southern Cathedrals Festival at Chichester Cathedral in July 1965 (a sabbatical year for Bernstein), the work nonetheless had its premiere in New York, with the composer conducting, two weeks before its first performance in Chichester. The unusual scoring omits woodwinds in the orchestra, featuring instead two harps with elaborate parts that Bernstein wrote before the rest of the orchestral music. In a nod to English choral tradition (and perhaps King David as psalmist), the main vocal soloist is a boy or countertenor.
The work opens with a rousing, motivically important introduction on a verse from Psalm 108, beginning “Awake, psaltery and harp.” Properly awoken, the main body of the first movement is a jubilant 7/4 setting of Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands.”
The lyrically centered core of the work is Bernstein’s serenely floating interpretation of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” The boy soloist starts it simply, over the harps, joined by the women of the chorus in hushed assurance. The men of the chorus interrupt this with the violence of the first four verses of Psalm 2, “Why do the nations rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?” Peace prevails, but only over a final persistent hint of the interrupting conflict. Bernstein adapted both thematic elements from outtakes from the previous decade’s theater projects: the boy’s melody from a projected but unfinished musical based on Thorton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth, and the men’s rumble from an early version of West Side Story, when one of the rival gangs was intended to be Jewish-American.
A meditative but disturbed orchestral prelude, based on the opening hymn, leads into Psalm 131, set by Bernstein with swaying, anthemic grace in 10/4. The first verse of Psalm 133 serves as a benediction, leading gentle solos from strings and singers into a soft, unison “Amen,” embodying in sound the text: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”
— John Henken