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Composed: 1965

Length: c. 19 minutes

Orchestration: three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbal, snare drum, triangle, tambourine, glockenspiel, xylophone, chimes, woodblocks, temple blocks, whip, bongos, rasp), 2 harps, strings, chorus, and solo treble

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: September 13, 2011, with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and boy alto Caleb Glickman, Bramwell Tovey conducting

About this Piece

The impetus for Bernstein’s creation of Chichester Psalms came in December 1963 in the form of a commission letter from the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, Dean of the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England, for a festival to be held in Chichester in August 1965. (The work was premiered July 15, 1965, in New York City, with the composer conducting the New York Philharmonic, before its August performance two weeks later in Chichester.)

The commission couldn’t have come at a better time. Since he had become music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, Bernstein had only completed his “Kaddish” Symphony No. 3 (1963). In his commissioning letter, Hussey informed Bernstein that he and the Chich- ester Organist and Choirmaster John Birch “wondered if you would be willing to write something for us… The sort of thing we had in mind was perhaps, say, a setting of Psalm 2, or some part of it, either unaccompanied or accompanied by orchestra or organ, or both.” In a follow-up letter after Bernstein had accepted the commission, Hussey added “I hope you will feel 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.”

Bernstein didn’t bother to utilize an organ, but he did include music that was cut from the Prologue to West Side Story as well as verses from Psalm 2 in the second movement. He also recycled materials from his incomplete musical The Skin of Our Teeth. Each of the three movements includes a complete psalm and a fragment from another; the fragments either agree or contrast with the ideas expressed in the complete psalm.

The first movement for chorus and orchestra presents the complete text of Psalm 100 and fragments from 108. Following the opening chorus of Psalm 108:2, the music runs headlong into a bouncy 7/4 meter, dance-like music in praise of the Lord with great noise and joy.

The second movement begins with a cymbal flourish leading immediately into a setting of Psalm 23 for treble voice accompanied by harp. The peace is broken by the bellicose nature of Psalm 2:1-4 rendered as a martial type of music for full chorus, brass, and percussion. The remainder of the movement is a weaving of the two different musics.

After a plaintive opening for strings and solo trumpet, the third movement continues with calmness and peace representing the sentiments expressed in Psalm 131 and Psalm 133:1. — Steve Lacoste