Chichester Psalms

Chichester Psalms
Score of page 1, Movement I of Chichester Psalms, Boosey & Hawkes edition. Note the changes of time signature. The movement settles into its predominant 7/4 metre in bar 11 (not shown).

Chichester Psalms is a choral work by Leonard Bernstein for boy treble or countertenor, solo quartet, choir and orchestra (3 trumpets in B, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion [7-8 players], 2 harps, and strings). A reduction written by the composer pared down the orchestral performance forces to organ, one harp, and percussion.

Bernstein stated explicitly in his writing that the part for countertenor may be sung by either a countertenor or a boy soprano, but never by a woman. This was to reinforce the liturgical meaning of the passage sung, perhaps to suggest that the 23rd Psalm, a "Psalm of David" from the Hebrew Bible, was to be heard as if sung by the boy David himself. The text was arranged by Bernstein from the psalms in the original Hebrew. Part 1 uses Psalms 100 and 108, Part 2 uses 2 and 23 and Part 3 uses 131 and 133.



The work was commissioned for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals' Festival at Chichester Cathedral by the cathedral's organist, John Birch, and the Dean, Walter Hussey. However, the world premiere took place in the Philharmonic Hall, New York on July 15, 1965 with the composer conducting, followed by the performance in the Chichester Festival on July 31, conducted by John Birch. Some material was recycled from early sketches of West Side Story, which was initially supposed to involve a Jewish-American gang, as well as a never-completed musical version of Thornton Wilder's play The Skin of Our Teeth.

Chichester Psalms was Bernstein's first composition after his Third Symphony (Kaddish). They are his two most overtly Jewish works. While both works have a chorus singing texts in Hebrew, the Kaddish Symphony has been described as a work often at the edge of despair, while Chichester Psalms is affirmative and at times serene.

The Psalms and the first movement in particular are noted among performers for their musical difficulty, with the opening section of the first movement often considered one of the hardest passages for choral tenors ever written, owing to the range of the piece, its rhythmic complexity and the consistent presence of the strange and difficult-to-maintain parallel 7ths between the tenor and bass parts (see illustration). The seventh interval figures prominently due to its numerological importance in the Judeo-Christian tradition; also the first movement is written in the 7/4 meter, and the third in 10/4 (separated into half-bars of 5/4).

Like many of Bernstein's works, the Chichester Psalms significantly features the harp; the full orchestral version requires two intricate harp parts. Bernstein completed the harp parts before composing the accompanying orchestral and choral parts, thus granting the harpists a pivotal role in realizing the music. In rehearsals, Bernstein is noted to have requested that the harpists play through the piece before the rest of the orchestra to emphasize the importance of the harp's role.

A notable recording was made in 1986 conducted by Richard Hickox. With Bernstein's approval, the countertenor part was sung by Aled Jones, then a treble.

Despite the work's difficulty, it is occasionally performed as an anthem in services of choral Evensong in the most musical Anglican cathedrals. The soloist in the second movement is thus very often a treble.

The Piece


Psalm 108, vs. 2 (in KJV; vs. 3 in Hebrew)

עוּרָה, הַנֵּבֶל וְכִנּוֹר;
אָעִירָה שָּׁחַר.

Urah, hanevel, v'chinor!
A-irah shaar

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

The introduction (presented in the score as part of movement one) begins gathering energy. Word painting is used in that the dissonant 7ths present in every chord sound like clanging bells, indicating that we are being told to awaken in a deep and profound way. In the first measure, Bernstein also introduces a leitmotif in the soprano and alto parts consisting of a descending perfect fourth, ascending minor seventh, and descending perfect fifth. The motif is also found with the seventh inverted as a descending major second. The significance of the passage is unknown to the editor, except that it conjures up images of tuning the harp and psaltery (especially the use of perfect fourths and fifths). This leitmotif is found elsewhere in the work, including the end of the first movement ("Ki tov Adonai," m. 109-116), the third movement prelude, and in the soprano part of the final a cappella section of movement three ("Hineh mah tov," m.60), with a haunting reintroduction of the material in the harp on unison G's during the "Amen" of m. 64.

First Movement

Psalm 100

הָרִיעוּ לַיהוָה, כָּל־הָאָרֶץ.
עִבְדוּ אֶת־יְהוָה בְּשִׂמְחָה;
בֹּאוּ לְפָנָיו, בִּרְנָנָה.
דְּעוּ-- כִּי יְהוָה, הוּא אֱלֹהִים:
הוּא־עָשָׂנוּ, ולא (וְלוֹ) אֲנַחְנוּ--
עַמּוֹ, וְצֹאן מַרְעִיתוֹ.
בֹּאוּ שְׁעָרָיו, בְּתוֹדָה--
חֲצֵרֹתָיו בִּתְהִלָּה;
הוֹדוּ־לוֹ, בָּרְכוּ שְׁמוֹ.
כִּי־טוֹב יְהוָה, לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ;
וְעַד־דֹּר וָדֹר, אֱמוּנָתוֹ.

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

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.

The first movement is in a joyous 7/4 meter, sung in a festive fashion, as is implored in the first verse of the psalm. Its last words, "Ki tov Adonai", recall the 7th interval presented as the main theme in the introduction.

Second Movement

יְהוָה רֹעִי, לֹא אֶחְסָר.
בִּנְאוֹת דֶּשֶׁא, יַרְבִּיצֵנִי;
עַל-מֵי מְנֻחוֹת יְנַהֲלֵנִי.
נַפְשִׁי יְשׁוֹבֵב;
יַנְחֵנִי בְמַעְגְּלֵי־צֶדֶק,
לְמַעַן שְׁמוֹ.

גַּם כִּי־אֵלֵךְ
בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת,
לֹא־אִירָא רָע--
כִּי־אַתָּה עִמָּדִי;
שִׁבְטְךָ וּמִשְׁעַנְתֶּךָ,
הֵמָּה יְנַחֲמֻנִי.

לָמָּה, רָגְשׁוּ גוֹיִם;
וּלְאֻמִּים, יֶהְגּוּ־רִיק.
יִתְיַצְּבוּ, מַלְכֵי־אֶרֶץ--
וְרוֹזְנִים נוֹסְדוּ־יָחַד:
עַל־יְהוָה, וְעַל־מְשִׁיחוֹ.
נְנַתְּקָה, אֶת־מוֹסְרוֹתֵימוֹ;
וְנַשְׁלִיכָה מִמֶּנּוּ עֲבֹתֵימוֹ.
יוֹשֵׁב בַּשָּׁמַיִם
יִשְׂחָק: אֲדֹנָי,

תַּעֲרֹךְ לְפָנַי, שֻׁלְחָן--
נֶגֶד צֹרְרָי;
דִּשַּׁנְתָּ בַשֶּׁמֶן רֹאשִׁי,
כּוֹסִי רְוָיָה.

אַךְ, טוֹב וָחֶסֶד
יִרְדְּפוּנִי-- כָּל־יְמֵי חַיָּי;
וְשַׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית־יְהוָה,
לְאֹרֶךְ יָמִים.

"David" and sopranos (Psalm 23)
Adonai ro-i, lo esar.
Bin'ot deshe yarbitseini,
Al mei m'nuot y'nahaleini,
Naf'shi y'shovev,
Yan'eini 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'naamuni.
(Tenors and basses (Psalm 2, vs. 1-4))
Lamah rag'shu goyim
Ul'umim yeh'gu rik?
Yit'yats'vu malchei erets,
V'roznim nos'du yaad
Al Adonai v'al m'shio.
N'natkah et mos'roteimo,
V'nashlichah mimenu avoteimo.
Yoshev bashamayim
Yis'ak, Adonai
Yil'ag lamo!
(sopranos (Psalm 23))
Ta'aroch l'fanai shulchan
Neged tsor'rai
Dishanta vashemen roshi
Cosi r'vaya.
Ach tov vaesed
Yird'funi kol y'mei ayai
V'shav'ti b'veit Adonai
L'orech yamim.

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.

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!

Thou preparest a table before me
In the presence of my enemies,
Thou anointest 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

The second movement begins with the psalm of David set in a conventional meter (3/4) with a tranquil melody, sung by the boy treble (or countertenor), and repeated by the soprano voices in the chorus. This is abruptly interrupted by the orchestra and the low, rumbling sounds (again word painting) of the men's voices singing psalm 2 (also notably featured in Handel's Messiah). This is gradually overpowered by the soprano voices (with the direction, "blissfully unaware of threat" in m. 102 - this is in the vocal score only) with David serenely reaffirming the second portion of psalm 23. However, the last measures of the movement contain notes which recall the interrupting section, symbolizing mankind's unending struggle with conflict and faith.

Interestingly, the boy's theme was adapted from a musical that Bernstein never completed, The Skin of Our Teeth (based on the play by Thornton Wilder). The men's theme was adapted from material that was cut out of West Side Story.

Third Movement

Psalm 131

לֹא־גָבַהּ לִבִּי--
וְלֹא־רָמוּ עֵינַי;
בִּגְדֹלוֹת וּבְנִפְלָאוֹת
אִם־לֹא שִׁוִּיתִי,
נַפְשִׁי: כְּגָמֻל, עֲלֵי אִמּוֹ;
כַּגָּמֻל עָלַי נַפְשִׁי.
יַחֵל יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶל־יְהוָה--
מֵעַתָּה, וְעַד־עוֹלָם.

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

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.

The third movement begins with a conflicted and busy instrumental prelude which recapitulates the chords and melody from the introduction; then suddenly it breaks into the gentle chorale set in a rolling 10/4 (1+ 2++, 3+ 4++) meter which recalls desert palms swaying in the breeze.


Psalm 133, vs. 1

הִנֵּה מַה־טּוֹב,
שֶׁבֶת אַחִים

Hineh mah tov,
Umah na'im,
Shevet aḥim
Gam yaḥad

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

The finale comes in from the third movement without interruption. The principal motifs from the introduction return here to unify the work and create a sense of returning to the beginning, but here the motifs are sung pianississimo, and greatly extended in length. Particularly luminous harmonies eventually give way to a unison note on the last syllable of the text - another example of word painting, since the final Hebrew word, Yaḥad, means "together" or, more precisely, "as one." This same note is that on which the choir then sings the amen, while one muted trumpet plays the opening motif one last time and the orchestra, too, ends on a unison G, with a tiny hint of a Picardy third.

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