for mixed chorus, countertenor solo, organ, harp and percussion
The Chichester Psalms were commissioned by the Very Rev Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester, for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals Festival, in which the musicians of Chichester were joined by those of Salisbury and Winchester. The Dean, who was a noted champion of the arts, requested that the music should contain ‘a hint of West Side Story’and Bernstein himself said he wanted the music to be ‘forthright, songful, rhythmic, youthful.’
The work was written with an all-male choir in mind, and the first performance of this version was given in Chichester Cathedral on 31 July 1965. However, the sold-out premiere had already taken place on 15 July in New York,
with the composer conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra
and a mixed choir.
The work consists of three movements, each an affirmative setting of the original Hebrew text of one complete psalm, together with one or more verses of a second psalm. The piece is always performed in Hebrew: Bernstein never sanctioned an English translation.
The first movement begins with a short introduction in the form of a slow, forceful and dissonant fanfare-like setting of Psalm 108 verse 2.
Urah, hanevel, v’chinor!
Awake, psaltery and harp:
I will rouse the dawn!
The main part of this movement is an exuberant and joyful setting of Psalm 100 in seven-four time. The number seven, significant in both the Jewish and Christian traditions, also features prominently in the harmonic/melodic language of the Psalms.
At the end an instrumental interlude and a short peaceful section on the words ‘Ki tov Adonai’ (For the Lord is good) lead to a resounding coda.
Hari’u l’Adonai kol ha’arets.
Iv’du et Adonai b’simcha.
Bo’u l’fanav bir’nanah.
D’u ki Adonai Hu Elohim.
Hu asanu, v’lo anachnu.
Amo v’tson mar’ito.
Bo’u sh’arav b’todah,
Hodu lo, bar’chu sh’mo.
Ki tov Adonai, l’olam chas’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 ye that the Lord, He is God.
It is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves.
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.
Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,
And into His courts with praise.
Be thankful unto Him, and bless His name.
For the Lord is good, His mercy is everlasting,
And His truth endureth to all generations.
The second movement begins with a setting of the first four verses of Psalm 23 for alto solo, with harp accompaniment, followed by the sopranos and altos of the choir in canon. The music is recognisably that of the composer of West Side Story – its ‘bluesy’ feel signals the influence of American popular music. Bernstein is careful to direct that the solo must be sung not by a woman, but ‘without sentimentality’ by a boy
or a male alto.
Adonai ro’i, lo echsar.
Bin’ot deshe yarbitseini,
Al mei m’nuchot y’nahaleini,
Yan’cheini v’ma’aglei tsedek,
Gam ki eilech
Lo ira ra,
Ki Atah imadi.
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.
The gentle music in three-four time is suddenly interrupted by an agitated and menacing setting for tenors and basses of the first four verses of Psalm 2. This angry music, which contains material cut from the score of West Side Story, is in common time (four beats in a bar).
Lamah rag’shu goyim
Ul’umim yeh’gu rik?
Yit’yats’vu malchei erets,
V’roznim nos’du yachad
Al Adonai v’al m’shicho.
N’natkah et mos’roteimo,
V’nashlichah mimenu avoteimo.
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 bonds asunder,
And cast away their cords from us.
He that sitteth in the heavens
Shall laugh, and the Lord
Shall have them in derision!
Bernstein contrives to combine these two elements as the upper parts join in, ‘blissfully unaware of the threat,’ to sing the remainder of Psalm 23. At the end the sounds of conflict can still be heard in the far distance, as the organ recalls the middle section in a different key.
Ta’aroch l’fanai shulchan
Dishanta vashemen roshi
Ach tov vachesed
Yird’funi kol y’mei chayai,
V’shav’ti b’veit Adonai
Thou preparest a table before me
In the presence of mine 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 final movement begins with an extended chromatic organ prelude based on the music of the opening chorale of the whole work, and on a rising motif that forms the basis of much of the subsequent setting of Psalm 131.
As in the opening movement, the rhythm of this setting uses an asymmetrical time signature (in this case bars of ten beats divided into two halves of five).
Yet the mood is quite opposite to the exuberance of Movement I, and carries the direction ‘peacefully flowing’. Much of the choral writing is in two parts, the upper voices answering the lower.
Lo gavah libi,
V’lo ramu einai,
Im lo shiviti
Naf’shi k’gamul alei imo,
Kagamul alai naf’shi.
Yachel Yis’rael el Adonai
Me’atah v’ad olam.
My heart is not haughty,
Nor mine eyes lofty,
Neither do I exercise myself
In great matters or in things
Too wonderful for me.
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.
Finally the opening chorale of the first movement returns, this time slowly and quietly, in an unaccompanied setting of the first verse of Psalm 133, which expresses the central message of the work.
Hineh mah tov,
Behold how good,
And how pleasant it is,
For brethren to dwell
Together in unity.