On June 23, 1973, Leonard Bernstein conducted his Chichester Psalms at the Vatican, in celebration of the 10-year anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s ascension to the papacy.
The concert also included J.S. Bach’s Magnificat; however, Chichester Psalms claims the historic significance of the day: this was likely the first time music with a Hebrew text was performed at the Vatican.
On the 45th anniversary of this historic concert, we’re delving into the music — and memories of Chichester Psalms.
Bernstein on “Tonal and Tuneful” Chichester Psalms
Bernstein composed Chichester Psalms in 1965 during a conducting sabbatical from the New York Philharmonic. In a poem quoted by The New York Times that year, Bernstein described the process of composing the work, commissioned in 1963 by Walter Hussey, dean of the Chichester Cathedral, for a choral festival:
For hours on end, I brooded and mused
On materiae musicae, used and abused;
On aspects of unconventionality,
Over the death in our time of tonality, …
Pieces for nattering, clucking sopranos
With squadrons of vibraphones, fleets of pianos
Played with forearms, the fists and the palms
— And then I came up with the Chichester Psalms.
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 E-flat major,
But there it stands — the result of my pondering,
Two long months of avant-garde wandering —
My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet.
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.
In 1977, Bernstein described Chichester Psalms: “the most accessible, B-flat major-ish tonal piece I’ve ever written.”
Three Movements, Six Psalms: Words of Peace and Reconciliation
Chichester Psalms is comprised of three movements, and the libretto is entirely in Hebrew. Each movement is based on the text of a complete Psalm, paired with an excerpt of another Psalm. The official Leonard Bernstein website describes the work:
Chichester Psalms juxtaposes vocal part writing most commonly associated with Church music (including homophony and imitation), with the Judaic liturgical tradition.
Bernstein specifically called for the text to be sung in Hebrew (there is not even an English translation in the score), using the melodic and rhythmic contours of the Hebrew language to dictate mood and melodic character.
By combining the Hebrew with Christian choral tradition, Bernstein was implicitly issuing a plea for peace in Israel during a turbulent time in the young country’s history.
The first movement starts with Psalm 108: verse 3, paired with Psalm 100, in its entirety. The second movement features all of the famous Psalm 23, interrupted with Psalm 2: verses 1-4. The third movement, the longest of the three, is based on all of Psalm 131, paired with Psalm 133: verse 1.
Have a look at the text here, as handwritten by Bernstein, courtesy of the Library of Congress, Music Division:
Explore this Bernstein work and view the original score.
Remembering Chichester Psalms
“If there would be one piece to make/have someone listen and say here is what Bernstein can do as a composer, I believe I would choose the Chichester Psalms,” Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director, said in an interview with WRTI’s Susan Lewis.
This is a piece that he believes encapsulates everything Bernstein stood for.
“He had this goal all his life to bring people together regardless of their religions, origins, generations, and aspirations in life,” Nézet-Séguin said. “Bernstein showed all of us the way many decades ago. And now, all of the world, this is what we’re trying to do in the symphony orchestras, in opera houses, and concert presenters is to break boundaries.”
Daniel Oren, of Tel Aviv, Israel, remembers Leonard Bernstein:
How nice, that the great maestro Bernstein chose a young Daniel Oren as the [boy soprano] soloist of Chichester Psalms, one of his masterpieces among his own compositions. As soon as Maestro Bernstein heard Oren singing only two notes, he said: “It’s him I was looking for.”
Here they are together, right after the performance, live from Jerusalem. It was the first thing transmitted on the Israelian TV overall.
Marjory Klein: Once in a Lifetime
Marjory Klein, of Lawrenceville, New Jersey, remembers Leonard Bernstein:
In 1977 (or ’78), I was singing with the Choral Arts Society of Washington, DC. On the program was Chichester Psalms, which we were to perform with the Israel Philharmonic and Maestro Bernstein conducting. I had been chosen to sing the short alto solo in the first movement.
When it came time to sing it in front of the Maestro in rehearsal for the first time, I was petrified and could barely squeak out my part. He was very encouraging, even for the short time I sang. At a break, I was bold enough to ask to speak with him about the solo. He was kindness and patience itself, giving me a mini-coaching on each note of my little snippet. This whole experience was just icing on the cake of the already mountaintop experience of singing under his baton for this amazing concert.
Pope Paul VI: After Hearing Chichester Psalms at the Vatican, 1973
After the June 23rd concert by Orchestra Sinfonica de Roma, the Harvard Glee Club and the Newark Boys Chorus, the Pope blessed the musicians, and thanked Bernstein, saying: “Ecco un Americano che vien a dare lezione musicale a noi della vecchia Europa. (Behold an American who has come to give music lessons to us of the old Europe.)”
Hear Chichester Psalms Today
Interested in hearing Chichester Psalms performed live? You have your pick of concerts this year. Here are just a few happening this summer:
- Vienna, Austria | June 21
Vienna Academic Philharmonic
- Eugene, Oregon, USA | July 10
Oregon Bach Festival and Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy
- London, England | July 11
St. Paul’s Cathedral
- Brevard, North Carolina, USA | July 13
Brevard Music Center
- Hereford, Wales, UK | August 2
National Youth Orchestra of Wales
Listen now on Spotify or Apple Music or via Arkiv Music: