A bit of Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein, son of Lawrence, Massachusetts (1918-1990)

The Southern Cathedral Festival is held every year, in July, at one of three locales in the UK: the cathedral of Chichester, Winchester, or Salisbury.  The days of the festival are filled with choral and organ music, lectures, master classes, and evensong.  This year’s event will be in Chichester–as was the very first concert, in September 1904, from which this tradition began–so it seems fitting to publish a post highlighting a work that was commissioned for the 1965 festival: Leonard Bernstein‘s Chichester Psalms.  (The commission came from the Very Rev. Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, who at one point wrote to Bernstein, “many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of ‘West Side Story’ about the music!”).

Bernstein composed this piece for choir (all male or mixed), a boy alto (who has a lovely solo in the second movement), and orchestra.  Over the course of the ~19 minute work, five percussionists are occupied with an array of instruments, including glockenspiel, xylophone, chimes, triangle, wood block, temple blocks, tambourine, snare drum, bongos, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, whip and rasp, thereby adding layers of texture and real personality.  The texts, sung in Hebrew, are from the Book of Psalms; each of the three movements includes the full text of one Psalm and a line or two from another.

Chichester Cathedral

This work is very accessible; indeed, despite the fact that I’m not typically drawn to 20th century works, I, personally, love it and have from the first time I heard it.  I focus here on the first movement, which opens with a brief but dramatic introduction: sung and played at double and triple forte volume with a tempo marking of maestoso ma energico (‘majestically, but with energy’)…instructions from the composer that suit the accompanying verse from Psalm 108 and its exhortation to “Awake!”

The text for the rest of the first movement is Psalm 100, and its call to ‘Make a joyful noise’ is again, perfectly complemented by the music, played at a rapid tempo–allegro molto–in 7/4 time.  If I had no idea of the words and if I didn’t know that the score was marked con gioia–‘with joy’–I would still feel just that: joy, most especially from 1:23-1:36.

Any day that includes 13 seconds of joy is a good day.

(This wonderful recording is by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Gerard Schwarz, along with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir, and the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral Choir.)

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

Hari’u l’Adonai kol ha’arets.
Iv’du et Adonai b’simḥa
Bo’u l’fanav bir’nanah.
Du ki Adonai Hu Elohim.
Hu asanu v’lo anaḥnu.
Amo v’tson mar’ito.
Bo’u sh’arav b’todah,
Ḥatseirotav bit’hilah,
Hodu lo, bar’chu sh’mo.
Ki tov Adonai, l’olam ḥas’do,
V’ad dor vador emunato.

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

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

More thoughts: One often sees interviews in which an individual is asked, “If you could have dinner with a small group of famous people, living or dead, whom would you choose and why?” If anyone were to ask me this question, Leonard Bernstein would be on my list.  From everything I’ve read about him, Bernstein seems to have been a force of life: composer, conductor, pianist, author, and educator.  A number of people, including those closest to him–e.g., his daughter Jamie and his brother Burton–have stated that it was his role as a teacher and educator that mattered most.  Here’s his daughter, Jamie:

“[My father] was a man of many accomplishments, but he was proudest of his own achievements as a teacher.

There’s a Hebrew phrase that makes me think of [him]: “Torah Lishmah.” And it means, loosely translated, a raging thirst for knowledge. And [he] had it about almost everything! He just could not absorb enough information on the things that interested him: not just music but also Shakespeare, the Renaissance, world religions, Lewis Carroll, biology, Russian literature, the two World Wars, astrophysics, French drama — and any places where these topics overlap. His brain was on fire with curiosity. And what he loved most was to communicate his excitement to others.”

Can you imagine a more engaging dinner companion?!  To me, he sounds very much like one of Mr. Kerouac’s Roman candles, the subject of a recent post.

And speaking of Roman candles, Happy 4th of July to those among my tiny group of regular readers/followers who live stateside….


  • During my long life as a free-lance violinist I’ve had numerous opportunities to play “Chichester Psalms,” but not recently. Procuring the best boy singer is not always easy; perhaps that’s why the piece isn’t done as often as it once was….also, these days, any chorus needs to keep low the costs of hiring a live orchestra. Granted, the size of this orch. doesn’t have to be large (strings can be at a minimum no.), but once you pay all that doubling for percussion coverage (plus cartage fees for the extra instruments)….well, it’s not all that cheap…

    I had a chance to play under Mr. Bernstein’s baton….that was at Tanglewood when I was a fellow there, back in the 70s. He was a very cordial, sweet-natured (at least that’s how it seemed to me at the time) man….we performed Mahler with him….so I’ve played numerous of Bernstein’s works (LOVE West Side Story!), and I’ve played under his baton, but I never played one of his works under his baton….always wanted to see him conduct his Mass.


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