Current Issue #488

The makings of Chichester Psalms

The makings of Chichester Psalms

Following Bernstein on Stage! in March, the ASO’s centenary celebrations of this landmark composer conclude with his Chichester Psalms.

Besides his Mass, Leonard Bernstein wrote one other great work that expresses his spiritual outlook, and that is the Chichester Psalms. This thunderous and moving masterpiece is more usually heard in a chamber version for choir, organ, harp and percussion, but Adelaide gets to hear it in full blazing orchestral force when the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under conductor Nicholas Carter pairs it with Beethoven’s Ninth in November.

Ostensibly Chichester Psalms is a real oddity, because here we have an American composer who, as an avowed Jew, finds himself writing music for an Anglican cathedral in an English city with which he had no connection. Not only that, it is a composition of reverberating power with influences of jazz and Broadway that made it totally out of character for any religious work at that time.

It came into being purely by chance. Walter Hussey, an Anglican cleric and leading arts patron had in the 1940s commissioned music from a panoply of British composers including Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett and Malcolm Arnold.

Trying his luck and having never met Bernstein before, Hussey wrote to him in 1963 asking if he would be interested in writing a psalm setting for Chichester Cathedral’s annual music festival.

“I hope you will feel quite free to write as you wish and will in no way feel inhibited by the circumstances. I think many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music,” he wrote.

His entreaty worked a charm. Bernstein immediately agreed and ended up creating one of his most accessible non-stage works. In its visionary awe and three-movement span, Chichester Psalms forms a counterpart to Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms but is altogether more dramatic and popular in tone. In several places, he splices in discarded sketches from West Side Story and from a newer musical that he had just abandoned based on Thornton Wilder’s play, The Skin of Our Teeth.

The result is a work of hammering force that cries out with the words, “Awake, psaltery and harp: I will rouse the dawn!” in full choir and orchestra. The sheer volume must have nearly lifted the rafters of Chichester Cathedral when it was unveiled there in 1965. But Chichester Psalms also contains some of Bernstein’s gentlest music, when a boy soprano sweeps all the noise aside in the second movement and sings “The Lord is my shepherd” from Psalm 23 to the delicate sounds of harp.

It should be well worth hearing. Joining the ASO for this final Master Series concert for the year will be the Adelaide Chamber Singers Symphonic Chorus and solo singers Jacqueline Porter, Anna Dowsley, Paul O’Neill and Andrew Collis.

Freedom & Joy – Master Series 10
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
16 and 17 November, Adelaide Town Hall

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