'Chichester Psalms' and 'Arias and Barcarolles' by Leonard Bernstein Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Chichester Psalms' and 'Arias and Barcarolles' by Leonard Bernstein

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Chichester Psalms, although a comparatively short work (less than 20 minutes in duration) is one of Bernstein's most popular pieces and provides a good introduction to his writing. It is full of Bernsteinian dramatic contrasts. It utilises his trademark lively, asymmetrical rhythms, often with five or seven beats to the bar; his angular melodies with large, surprising leaps; his placing of accents where least expected; his use of speech rhythm in song. The text is the original Biblical Hebrew, which Bernstein sometimes daringly manipulates to great dramatic effect.

Chichester Psalms was commissioned for the 1965 annual choral festival at Chichester Cathedral, Sussex, UK. The world premiere took place on 15 July, 1965, at the Philharmonic Hall, New York, with the composer conducting. He subsequently attended the first performance of the original version for all-male choir on 31 July, 1965, at Chichester.

The music of Chichester Psalms is essentially American, incorporating within its core 'classical' style elements of Bernstein's beloved jazz, blues and Broadway music. When commissioning the work the dean of Chichester Cathedral mentioned that 'many of us would be delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music'. Bernstein duly obliged.

The music mostly has simple harmonies, apart from a couple of more dissonant passages at the very start of the piece and at the beginning of the last movement. This is how Bernstein described Chichester Psalms in the New York Times:

The 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.

Each of the three movements comprises one complete psalm and an extract from another, complementary or contrasting, psalm. The first movement opens with a chorale on Psalm 108, verse 2: 'Awake, psaltery and harp: I myself will awake early', which is followed allegro molto with Psalm 100 complete: 'Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands...' in a jazzy 7/4 rhythm punctuated with jaunty Latin American bongo drums.

The second movement opens with Psalm 23, complete: 'The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want...' The first three verses of the psalm are sung by a boy solo, to a simple harp accompaniment, as though David himself were singing - but singing in the blues idiom. Then the upper voices of the choir join in at the verse 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...'. But the rustic simplicity of the scene is suddenly shattered by the male choristers, who rudely interject, allegro feroce, with the first four verses of Psalm 2: 'Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?' This section utilises music originally from the 'Prologue' of West Side Story. After the men have made their point their voices gradually die away, and the tranquillity of the opening scene begins to descend once more.

The last movement opens with a dissonant orchestral Prelude recalling both the opening of the work and the Psalm 23 tune, then settles into a setting of Psalm 131 ('Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty...') marked peacefully flowing. This is in a steady 10/4 rhythm (which is really pairs of 5/4) and is as richly melodic as any Broadway number. This segues into the final section, the first verse of Psalm 133, 'Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity,' sung by unaccompanied choir. There is a final pianissimo 'Amen'.

Arias and Barcarolles

In an interview with the New York Times before the 1989 premiere of Arias and Barcarolles Bernstein explained where the title came from. Back in 1960 Bernstein had conducted a concert at the White House for President Dwight D Eisenhower, including a Mozart piano concerto and Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue. Afterwards the President said to Bernstein, 'You know, I liked that last piece you played. It's got a theme. I like music with a theme, not all them arias and barcarolles'. Bernstein obviously enjoyed the phrase, and used it nearly 30 years later for this song cycle.

Most of the songs of Arias and Barcarolles are to texts by Bernstein himself, set for soprano, baritone and piano. As so often before, the music is hugely eclectic, drawing on a wide variety of musical styles and traditions. The Romantic style is there and so is serial atonality. Some of the music requires improvisation, some of the singing is scat. But there is a theme. It is love, or the quest for love: its joys and frustrations, its high ideals and mundane realities, its harmony, counterpoint and dissonance.

The short 'Prelude' typifies an inner calm surrounded by external storms. The piano music is discordant and impetuous, but is calmly interrupted by the couple singing 'I love you. It's easy to say it and so easy to mean it too.' The piano seems to disagree, but the couple are off on an exploration of what 'I love you' means for them, how they can hold onto that in a turbulent world and where it might lead them.

In the 'Love Duet' that follows, the couple try to get a handle on what this 'love' thing might mean, how long it might last, whether it is lofty or banal, and whether any of this really matters. 'Scary, the way it flows, as if it knows the mystery; scary, the way it grows and grows, incessantly, evenly, unevenly...' The song they are singing is a metaphor for their relationship itself. Love turns out to be hard to define and impossible to conceptualise, neither soaring to great heights nor plunging into the depths, as the couple drift along within what might be termed an area of tolerable conflict.

The next song, 'Little Smary', is a bedtime story that the composer, as a child, often heard from his mother, Jennie Bernstein. The music alternates between the bright, cheerful tone of the mother telling a tale of 'lost and found' and the deep emotions of the listening child.

Then 'The Love of My Life' takes us back to the inner thoughts of the adult. Musically it alternates between atonal and tonal sections, with some rhythmic improvisation. The singer muses on how he could have simply missed out on the big definitive experience: 'The love of my life may still come, might, could, maybe did, did arrive once...' as he reflects that, after all, 'The love of my life is just five monosyllables'. The song is a reflection on life's what-ifs and maybes.

Then comes 'Greeting', first written in 1955 after Bernstein's son Alexander was born and revised in 1988. 'Every time a child is born, for the space of that brief instant the world is pure.' This simple, calm, reflective song is a complete contrast to what follows.

The next song is in Yiddish. 'Oif mayn Khas'neh' ('At my wedding') is a surreal and disturbing song about an enigmatic fiddler at a Jewish wedding. The guests do not know what to make of him and the sad old primitive music he plays. Bernstein's setting is raw and dissonant, and a Jewish cantorial passage in the middle of the song seems to sum up the emotion. The passion that inspires love can also be disturbing, even destructive. The song ends with a climactic prayer from the old folk: 'Have mercy!'

'Mr and Mrs Webb Say Goodnight' begins with a shrill whistle and a jaunty, childlike march tune. This is a drama set at 4am in the household of Charles and Kenda Webb and their sons Malcolm and Kent. The boys have woken their parents by scat-singing cool jazz in the middle of the night. Kenda cannot sleep and starts ranting about domestic problems. Charles manages to calm her down with nostalgic, romantic crooning. As peace is restored and the parents drift back to sleep the boys are heard quietly singing again. Then as a postlude there is a slow, calm waltz to which the singers hum quietly.

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