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Why The Unusual Chichester Psalms is Quintessential Leonard Bernstein

Evgeniy Podkopaev
Chichester Cathderal in Sussex, United Kingodm

Chichester Psalms was not a typical piece for the Anglican Church or for the 1960s avant-garde music world. But the work for boy soprano, solo quartet, choir, and orchestra reflects the rich variety of influences that characterized Bernstein’s life and music. WRTI’s Susan Lewis has more.

Commissioned by the dean of England's Chichester Cathedral for an upcoming music festival, Bernstein finished the setting of the three psalms in 1965. He used Hebrew text instead of English, and music that he himself gently mocked in verse for the New York Times. He wrote:

“These psalms are a simple and modest affair, tonal and tuneful and somewhat square.” 

But it was Bernstein being modest.

“I believe Chichester Psalms are one of his real, absolute masterpieces,” says Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. “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.”

Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin talks with WRTI's Susan Lewis about why he believes Chichester Psalms illustrates the brilliant essence of Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein was already known for his instrumental and vocal music for various settings‚from the concert hall to film to Broadway; and the Dean of Chichester encouraged him to include in this sacred music, “a hint of West Side Story”.

Bernstein used all his talents to bridge different worlds. “He had this goal all his life to bring people together regardless of their religions, origins, generations, and aspirations in life," says Yannick.  "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, and he definitely did that!”

On Sunday, May 27 at 1 pm on WRTI 90.1 , Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads The Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.