Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1991) was a pianist, conductor, educator, and composer. He became one of the nation’s foremost musical personalities, due to his success as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic (1958-1969), the popularity of his “Young People’s Concerts,” and the greatly divergent nature of his compositions, ranging from the musical comedies On The Town and West Side Story to the Kaddish Symphony and his Mass.
Chichester Psalms was commissioned for the 1965 Three Choir Festivals held in Chichester, England. Although the composition retains the eclecticism, drama, and intensity characteristic of the dramatic and flamboyant Bernstein, it is a very affirmative and straightforward expression of the text. The most dissonant passages, a triad with one added tone, occur in the opening of the first and third movements. The first movement begins with a dramatic declamation of text from Psalm 108 (Awake, Psaltery and Harp!). This is immediately contrasted with the complete Psalm 100 (Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord), which springs and bounds with joy through its irregular rhythms. The second movement contrasts a simple but unsentimental setting of Psalm 23 with a driving canon from Psalm 2 by the male voices (Why do the nations rage?) The opening melody was originally written as the song “Spring Will Come Again” for The Skin of Our Teeth. The middle section was originally intended to be the “Prologue” of West Side Story, but it is actually less dissonant and metrically more regular than that “Prologue.” The final movement makes a more consonant reference to the opening of the first movement and continues with one of the most sublime melodies Bernstein ever wrote.