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Chichester Memories

Reflections on a Choral Masterpiece

Thirty-eight years ago, the dean of a cathedral in the south of England wrote to one of America’s most prominent composers to commission a choral work for a summer music festival.  When Walter Hussey of Chichester Cathedral wrote to Leonard Bernstein about a work for the combined choirs of Winchester, Salisbury, and Chichester cathedrals, the composer was still recovering from the disastrous breakdown of collaborations on The Skin of Our Teeth, a musical based on Thornton Wilder’s play, which was to have been the focus of his year-long sabbatical from the New York Philharmonic.  The resulting Hebrew psalm settings, with remnants of the abandoned musical still floating through its measures, is lauded as a choral masterpiece that exemplifies the strains of musical integrity and universal appeal that flow through all of Bernstein’s works.

Abraham Kaplan, who was the director of the Camerata Singers at the world premiere of Chichester Psalms with the New York Philharmonic, reflects on the weeks before the premiere in his upcoming book:

As Bernstein was finishing the score of the Chichester Psalms, he invited me to his apartment to listen to the music. He sat at the piano, and played portions of the score for me, at which time I was absolutely thrilled about what I heard . . . Once I received a copy of the full Chichester Psalms score, I became more and more excited about the prospect of its publication. I came to the conclusion that this was a definitive Bernstein masterpiece, and the next time that I was with him, I told him as much. “I think this piece will live forever, and will be played after both of us are gone…probably the most of any of your other compositions,” I boldly proclaimed. Bernstein argued vigorously that I was exaggerating, and that this was just a small, 18 ½ minute piece that was good, but nothing special.”

 

Bernstein’s feelings about the piece seem to have been summarised in a poem he wrote in a New York Times article that appeared the Sunday before the first performance:

 

These psalms are a simple and modest affair,

Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square,

Certain to sicken a stout John Cager

With its tonics and triads in B flat major.”

 

 

Bernstein: Chichester Psalms

After the successful debut of the piece, Bernstein’s thoughts turned to publishing it.  Eager to see the work become a success, Kaplan convinced Bernstein that a singable English translation of Chichester Psalms would ensure its continuing triumph.  In turn, Bernstein induced Kaplan—who spoke both Hebrew and English—to begin work on the translation.  However, this proved to be a daunting task due to the differences in the structures of the two languages, especially concerning the placement of accents and the number of syllables in each word.  Recognising that an English version of the piece would require substantial alterations in the score, Bernstein and Kaplan abandoned the translation project, unwilling to compromise the integrity of the work.  However, this did not seem to hamper the popularity of Chichester Psalms, as Kaplan reflects, ”Even before his [Bernstein’s] passing . . . the Chichester Psalms came to enjoy the greatest recognition of all his choral compositions, and I’ve always cherished the fact that he was able to enjoy its popularity with audiences around the world.”

 

Although Chichester Psalms was written for the Southern Cathedrals Festival with the Winchester, Salibury, and Chichester combined choirs, neither the festival nor Chichester Cathedral were to host the debut performance of the work.  That honour went to the New York Philharmonic, who had requested that Bernstein include the piece in a concert of his works in early July.  Dean Hussey graciously did not object to the American performance, and New York saw the debut of Chichester Psalms on 15 July, 1965 with a mixed-voice, adult choir.  However, the cathedral festival still received the premiere performance of the original, preferred version of the piece, with an all-male choir on 31 July, 1965

A key performer in the U.K. premiere was David Gibson, who was the original treble soloist.  Although the performance seems distant now, he remembers it clearly.

“Even though I was only thirteen at the time, I knew that this was quite a momentous occasion. It was the final concert of the Southern Cathedrals' Festival and a live BBC Radio broadcast, with the Composer looking larger than life, sitting in the front row of the audience. I was having to sing a solo, which everybody finds hard because of the long slow phrases, in front of a packed audience, the microphones, this very glamorous celebrity composer from the States and worst of all, one's colleagues from "rival" Cathedral choirs of Winchester and Salisbury! Walter Hussey, the Dean of Chichester, was very supportive and Leonard Bernstein gave me an embrace and congratulations afterwards - but it certainly was nerve-wracking!”

According to Gibson, the choristers adapted better to the popular elements of the work than did the adults in the choir, who snickered over the thought of singing a sacred choral work by the composer of West Side Story [the work for which Bernstein primarily was known in Britain at that time].  Despite snickering lay clerks, an unfamiliar language, and an orchestra which had not seen the score until the day of the performance, everything seemed to go relatively smoothly, with Bernstein (in a letter to Helen Coates) calling the choirs “a delight!”

Currently a conductor and a choir director, Gibson has found that Chichester Psalms continues to play a role in his life, having conducting the piece on many occasions.

Alan Thurlow, current organist and Master of the Choristers at Chichester Cathedral, says that while the work did not transform the cathedral into a centre of pilgrimage for Bernstein fans, Chichester Psalms is a popular choice for visiting choirs and is performed in the cathedral about once every three years.  Although none of the current staff members were with the cathedral at the time of Chichester Psalms, several of the former choristers and Lay Vicars who sang in the first performance have kept in touch and still communicate with cathedral staff.    

The humble, 18½-minute work that had its origins in a failed Broadway show has become one of Leonard Bernstein’s most loved choral masterpieces.  This month, in her first recording with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Bernstein protégé Marin Alsop brings her unique command to this memorable piece.  Experience Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms plus On the Waterfront and On the Town in this new release from Naxos.

www.naxos.com/chichesterpsalms

For More Information:

 

www.naxos.com

www.leonardbernstein.com

www.chichestercathedral.org.uk

Abraham Kaplan currently is celebrated the 30th Anniversary of his “Glorious” album, which will be available for the first time on CD beginning October 1.

www.abrahamkaplan.com

David Gibson is a freelance conductor, pianist and organist who has worked with prestigious choirs and orchestras throughout England, including the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the New London Sinfonia, which he founded in 1987.

Abraham Kaplan’s complete account of working on the Chichester Psalms will be included in a book that he plans to release in 2004. Details will be posted at www.abrahamkaplan.com.

Burton, Humphrey.  Leonard BernsteinNew York: Doubleday, 1994. (Courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein estate.)

Copyright 2003, Naxos.com.  May not be republished or reprinted without permission.










 
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