PREPARING FOR CHICHESTER PSALMS

BY CHARLIE EVETT

For a bass, the middle of the second movement of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms stands out as one of the most “fun” passages in the choral literature. The tricky rhythms and Hebrew language are challenging enough to keep you on your toes, and the brisk tempo and dramatic dynamics are irresistible.

I first performed this in high school, and we drilled and drilled this section until it was completely burned into our subconscious, but I never had the slightest idea what the words meant. That didn’t stop us basses from saluting each other with a stout “V’roznim!” as we passed each other in the halls on the way to class.

Here is a bit of the Hebrew text:

Lamah rag'shu goyim
Ul'umim yeh'gu rik?
Yit'yats'vu malchei erets,
V'roznim nos'du yaḥad
Al Adonai v'al m'shiḥo.

Now I come to discover this is from Psalm 2, “Why do the Nations rage”. In his translation, Robert Alter presents this verse as:

“Why are the nations aroused,
and the peoples murmur vain things?
Kings of the earth take their stand,
and princes conspire together
against the Lord and His anointed.”

Of course this text is familiar to most of us from the bass aria in Handel’s Messiah. Here is a recording from Boston Cecilia’s one and only performance in 2000, with Mark Risinger as the bass  soloist. We see again that when you’re a bass being angry can be an excuse to have a grand time.

Interestingly, this part of the Chichester Psalms springs from the original request to the composer. In early December 1963, Bernstein received a letter from the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, Dean of the Cathedral of Chichester in Sussex, England, requesting a piece for the Cathedral’s 1965 music festival:

“The Chichester Organist and Choirmaster, John Birch, and I, are very anxious to have written some piece of music which the combined choirs could sing at the Festival to be held in Chichester in August, 1965, and we wondered if you would be willing to write something for us. I do realize how enormously busy you are, but if you could manage to do this we should be tremendously honoured and grateful. The sort of thing that we had in mind was perhaps, say, a setting of the Psalm 2, or some part of it, either unaccompanied or accompanied by orchestra or organ, or both. I only mention this to give you some idea as to what was in our minds.”

He goes on to say, “Many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music.” and indeed, the second movement has material taken from the Prologue of West Side Story.

This passage is just as evocative now as it was in 1965. When Chichester Psalms debuted at Lincoln Center on July 15th, “Operation Rolling Thunder” had been underway in Vietnam for 3 months — a “limited” bombing campaign against the communist controlled north. 60,000 American troops had been deployed to Vietnam and had begun “Search and Destroy” missions. Ho Chi Minh appeared on the cover of Time magazine the next day.

Bernstein was very active in social causes throughout his life. In March of 1965, he participated in a “Stars for Freedom” rally in Montgomery, Alabama to support the march from Selma led by Martin Luther King. 

Importantly, in the Chichester Psalms, the raging of nations gives way to the overarching message of peace that begins and ends the second movement, albeit with some final murmurs of vain things. In the last movement, flowing melody and a hushed final unison beautifully express Bernstein's hopes for peace and unity through music.