About this work
During his 12 years as music director of the New York Philharmonic (1958-1969), Leonard Bernstein turned away from composition for the most part, completing just two new works. One was the Symphony No. 3, "Kaddish" (1963), which coincided with a period in which Bernstein was carrying on a debate with himself on the future of music -- specifically the "conflict" between melodic, accessible music and a more experimental, avant-garde approach. Bernstein took a sabbatical from the Philharmonic during the 1964-1965 season and spent a few months writing 12-tone music. But he was dissatisfied with the result, writing that "It just wasn't my music; it wasn't honest." So he abandoned that work and started writing what he later called "the most accessible, B flat majorish piece I've ever written." This was the Chichester Psalms, composed mostly during the spring of 1965 on a commission by the Dean of Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England, who wanted a new work for a festival featuring the combined cathedral choirs of Winchester, Salisbury, and Chichester. That festival performance, featuring all male singers (Bernstein's preference for the composition), took place at Chichester on July 31, 1965, two weeks after the work's official premiere in New York on July 15, 1965, with alto John Bogart, the Camerata Singers, and the New York Philharmonic, all under Bernstein's direction.
Each of the three movements of the Chichester Psalms features a setting, in Hebrew, of one complete psalm, along with a verse or more of a second. Some of the musical material was taken from an aborted Broadway musical, The Skin of Our Teeth, which was one of the pieces Bernstein worked on during his sabbatical year. The first movement opens dramatically with a chorale-like setting of a portion of Psalm 108 ("Awake, psaltery and harp!"), followed by a lively, almost jazzy, Psalm 100 ("Make a joyful noise unto the Lord"). The second movement begins with a lovely lyrical tune, sung initially by a boy soprano soloist, for Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want"). That melody is taken up by the chorus, but the mood is suddenly interrupted by an aggressive setting of the opening of Psalm 2 ("Why do the nations rage"). The lyrical tune eventually appears in counterpoint with this more aggressive music, and Psalm 2 gives way to a peaceful return of the boy soprano. A passionate theme for the strings opens the final movement. The mood calms as the chorus intones a peaceful setting of Psalm 131 ("Lord, my heart is not haughty"), including one variation sung wordlessly. A group of soloists from the chorus explores this melody further, in preparation for a quiet and haunting setting of the opening of Psalm 133 ("Behold how good, and how pleasant it is") and a final Amen.