About this Recording
8.559177 - BERNSTEIN: Chichester Psalms / On the Waterfront
English  German 

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

On the Waterfront - Symphonic Suite • Chichester Psalms • On The Town - Three Dance Episodes

Leonard Bernstein was one of the most prodigious musicians America has ever produced. As conductor, performer, teacher, and musical personality, his restless spirit and unparalleled charisma established him as a consummate figure in American music. His twelve-year directorship of the New York Philharmonic, as well as the production of his Omnibus and Young People’s Concerts programmes for television, helped introduce the world of music to countless people of all ages. As a composer and man of multifarious tastes, defying musical categories, Bernstein fashioned original music to fit stage, screen, church, concert and recital hall. Perhaps no other musician of the twentieth century has led so diverse a musical career and has touched so many through the love of music.

The music to Elia Kazan’s 1954 film, On the Waterfront, represents Leonard Bernstein’s only original movie score. Starring a young Marlon Brando, Eva-Marie Saint and a surplus of stars, the Academy Award-winning movie is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time. Bernstein’s Oscar-nominated score captures the essence of New York, the city the musician called home for most of his life. Though the film itself was stimulating, he often found the experience confining, lamenting the lost music that ended up on the dubbing-room floor and writing to his friend Aaron Copland, “Hollywood is exactly how I expected it, only worse”. Bernstein fashioned a sixmovement suite from the film score the following year, incorporating some of the discarded material. An atmospheric solo horn that begins the work conjures a dark, urban landscape, invoking the misty East River docks. Saxophones, muted trumpets and percussion give the work a real city feel. Terry’s Theme, after the longshoreman character played by Brando, is heard in the middle and end of the suite, contrapuntally intertwined with the opening motive. Throughout, Bernstein contrasts anxious, frenetic rhythms with music of a more lyrical, human nature, a hallmark of the composer’s mature style. The suite is dedicated to Bernstein’s son, Alexander Serge, named in honor of Koussevitsky, Boston Symphony director and Bernstein’s mentor.

The 1964-1965 New York Philharmonic season was to have been a sabbatical year for its director, as Bernstein wished to concentrate solely on composing. His principal focus was on a musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, partnering with the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with choreography by Jerome Robbins. Although this project was never to get off the ground, another offer presented itself early in 1965. Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester cathedral in the English south-coast county of Sussex, wrote to the composer and offered to commission a work for the combined choirs of Winchester, Salisbury and Chichester cathedrals for an annual summer music festival. His request coincided with one of the few moments of relative quiet in the musician’s life; Bernstein immediately got to work, composing the score in his New York apartment, and completing the orchestration in Fairfield, Connecticut, in May 1965.

Bernstein devoted much of his sabbatical year to experimentation in twelve-tone composition, but ultimately rejected the strict orthodoxy of the doctrine, claiming that, for him, it was not honest. He proudly called his Chichester Psalms “the most B-flat majorish tonal piece I’ve ever written”, working on the premise that, in his work, tonality equals optimism. Perhaps because of its harmonic simplicity and universal text, the Chichester Psalms has become one of Bernstein’s most performed works. The honour of the first performance did not, in fact, go to the Chichester choir. In July 1965, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in a slightly altered version with a mixed, adult choir. The all-male version was first performed later the same month in England. Scored for mixed choir, boy solo, strings, three trumpets, three trombones, two harps and percussion, the three-movement work sets, in Hebrew, complete and partial psalms. The first movement begins with a suitably rousing Psalm 108 (Awake, psaltery and harp! I will arouse the dawn) and concludes with the complete Psalm 100 (Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands), the latter in a dancing 7/4 meter, the choir complemented by some colourful percussion. This music, featuring reworked material from the aborted The Skin of Our Teeth, dies away with the pattering of bongos. A tranquil A major distinguishes the second movement and the boy solo sweetly intoning Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd) is accompanied by two harps. A surprising interruption disrupts the calm and a blistering Allegro feroce is established, the shouting choir exclaiming Lamah rag’shu? (Why do the nations rage) over a frenzied orchestra. Bernstein here uses music cut from the Prologue to West Side Story, and reworked slightly to fit the Hebrew text. It is not difficult to imagine Sharks and Jets squaring off to this music. But soon the plaintive A major melody returns and the boy solo joins a quiet chorus in the final lines. Brittle, sustained string chords open the final movement, the longest of the three, before settling into a rippling 10/4 meter of an impressionistic nature. In the coda, from Psalm 133 (Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity), Bernstein unites the affirmative text with sumptuous music in a serene moment, the hushed choir concluding an expressive, final Amen on the note G. Despite the Hebrew text, there is scarcely any traditional Judaic musical material in Chichester Psalms, as utilized in the earlier First Symphony (“Jeremiah”), Re’ena, and Third Symphony (“Kaddish”), continuing with the Mass of 1971 and the ballet Dybbuk of 1974, each an expression of the composer’s faith.

Bernstein’s awesome contribution to American musical theatre began in 1944 with On the Town, a story - a significant reworking and expansion of the earlier ballet Fancy Free - of three sailors, each of whom encounters a particular set of adventures on shore leave in New York. The story and music capture the gaiety and spirit of the great city. The show opened in Boston, followed quickly by New York, and established Bernstein, with collaborators Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, as a potent force in musical theatre. The successful show could claim many firsts: it was the first American musical written by a symphonic composer, the first show to be bought by a film company for a movie adaptation, and the first show on Broadway to feature white and black dancers together. The 26-year old Bernstein extracted some music from the show and reorganized it with the title, Three Dance Episodes from “On the Town”, underscoring the leading rôle that dance plays in the musical. The first episode, The Great Lover, establishes the jazzy, bustling mood; the central episode introduces Lonely Town, one of the composer’s most memorable melodies. But the final episode, Times Square, featuring lively, swinging tunes of a peculiarly New York cast, is the epicentre of the musical suite, much as that famous intersection is the point of orientation to New Yorkers, as long as one remembers, as the song instructs, “the Bronx is up but the Battery’s down.”

Sean Hickey

 


Close the window