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Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein

2 tracks, 17.11 Saaby000 on July 18, 2011 19:07

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  • Chichester Psalms

    by Leonard Bernstein (1918 - 1990)
    American Contemporary

    performed by the chamber "Chorus Anonymous"
    with Piano and Percussions

    The commission of Chichester Psalms came from Dr. William Hussey, dean of Chichester Cathedral, which had regular music festivals with choirs from Winchester and Salisbury Cathedrals.

    Bernstein's inclusion in Chichester Psalms of music removed from West Side Story and the aborted The Skin of Our Teeth lent the work a Broadway sound. Bernstein admitted this to Hussey in a letter in May 1965: "It is quite popular in feeling and it has an old-fashined sweetness along with its more violent moments."

    Bernstein admitted the work's tonal simplicity, describing it in his poetic sabbatical report to The New York Times: "The Psalms are a simple and modest affair,/ Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square,/ Certain to sicken a stout John Cager/With its tonics and triads in E-flat major."

    In his letter to Hussey, Bernstein encapsulated the textual structure of Chichester Psalms: "[E]ach movement contains one complete psalm plus one or more verses from another complementary psalm by way of contrast or amplification."12 The first movement opens vwith Psalm 108: 2, and then includes all of Psalm 100. Movement two sets all of Psalm 23 with Psalm 2: 1-4 serving as contrast. The finale opens with all of Psalm 131 and concludes with Psalm 133: 1.13 Texts are sung in Hebrew. Like many of Bernstein's works, Chichester Psalms includes dramatic juxtapositions based upon text, especially in the second movement.

    The opening chorale sets the text "Awake, psaltery and harp! I will rouse the dawn! from Psalm 108. It is marked "Maestro ma energico" and includes one of Bernstein's typically angular melodic lines as a melodic cell. It is harmonized with added tone chords and set to declamatory rhythms in che choir. The faster orchestral interjections are also based on the melodic cell, stated first in B-flat major in the soprano and alto lines in measures 1-2 and carrying on what might be a blues note or modal reference, an A-flat on the penultimate note. Subsequent statements in other keys also include the lowered seventh.

    The chorale leads into the "allegro molto" in 7/4, a jaunty segment that sets all of Psalm 100: "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands." It is jazzy and commercial, in a popular vein, as Bernstein mentioned in his letter to Hussey. Measures of this segment are similar to the theme song from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Flintstones. When one considers the text, however, the reference makes sense. Psalm 100 concludes with the phrase, "And His truth endureth to all generations." This is sprightly music from a composer whose search for faith was trumpeted in a number of his works. Here he speaks to present generations using a contemporary and accessible musical style. Another vernacular influence in the movement are the three bongo parts in measure 50, demonstrating Bernstein's enduring love for Latin percussion.

    The second movement is the set's most theatrical conception, with the peace of Psalm 23 interrupted by Psalm 2's angry 'Why do the nations rage." The ideas are combined in the third section. Burton reports that the otherwordly opening melody was originally written with Betty Comden and Adolph Green for The Skin of Our Teeth as the song "Spring will Come Again."16 It is sung by boy alto or countertenor, accompanied by harp. The first phrase is quite angular. The three words with more than one syllable in this phrase are each set with minor leaps. The ascending minor sixth between measures 4 and 5 demonstrates the importance of bold leaps. It is balanced by a descending minor seventh, which raises the expectation for yet another leap, satisfied by the octave leap into measure 9. The descent to the d" that concludes the phrase changes the harmony to a seventh chord, resolved deceptively in the next phrase, opening in F# minor. The major melodic features in the second phrase are the c-naturals" in measures 12 and 16, blues notes.

    The music originally from the "Prologue" of West Side Story forms the central section of this movement. It is marked "Allegro feroce," but is metrically more regular and less dissonant than the "Prologue." Indeed, the melody that the males start to sing in measure 85 is a march, possibly showing more influence from Prokofiev or Shostakovich than American sources. The two main ideas of the movement are combined starting in measure 102, with blues melodic references remaining in the Psalm 23 melody.

    Vernacular elements are less important in the finale than in the first two movements. The opening segment is based on the cell from the first movement, but this passage, also chorale-like and homorhythmic, is softer in dynamic level and more dissonant with considerable use of bitonality. In measure 10, material is recalled from the opening of the second movement (measures 18-21), sofening the chorale's bite and preparing the 10/4 melody that starts in measure 20, an extended setting of Psalm 131. This meter is subdivided into two 5/4 measures in almost every detail, except for the paired quarter notes that sometimes accompany the melody, the middle pair tied across the two halves of each measure.

    "Adonai," meaning "Lord," when stated twice, easily lends itself to Bernstein's setting, with the leap of a perfect fifth between words, and then the final syllable settling on the long note. This melody could easily have appeared in one of Bernstein's Broadway shows, but it hardly ranks as a major moment of vernacular influence, with rich chromaticism not unlike a late nineteenth-century melody by Mahler, Richard Strauss, or another composer.

    Following the five statements of the theme in 10/4 (the third by instruments only) that set Psalm 131's peaceful text, Bernstein recalls the opening of the first movement in a final unaccompanied passage. The text states: "Behold how good,/ And pleasant it is,/ For brethren to dwell/ Together in unity." It is one of the sublime moments in his output, demonstrating his capacity for capturing a text's meaning in his music. IT is also a hushed chorale at the end of a religious work, heard as well in Mass. As the last note is held in the choir, muted trumpet and harp play the piece's opening cell once again, this time changing the last interval to an ascending major sixth for the final resolution to G major.

    Although brief, Chichester Psalms is an effective introduction to Bernstein's output. A number of his common stylistic traits -- especially angular melodies, assymmetric meters, dramatic juxtapositions, and motivic development -- are present. The work includes both music written from the inspiration of art music and music actually first written for a Broadway show. Vernacular models also include jazz, blues, and commercial music, always used in service of the text. For Bernstein eclecticism was not a crutch, but a liberating agent that allowed him compositional flexibility. It is this flexibility that makes Bernstein a successful dramatic composer, both for the stage and in concert music.

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