Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Blissfully Unaware of Threat: On Reading Bernstein's Chichester Psalms

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Blissfully Unaware of Threat: On Reading Bernstein's Chichester Psalms

Article excerpt

It's easy to bypass the cover of Chichester Psalms as it looks like so many of Leonard Bernstein's vocal scores. The cover is glossy white with his exuberant, trademarked, calligraphic signature a red splash up the left, full vertical, and eating up half the width. I must have looked at this cover a hundred times, dismissing it because it was so present, so declamatory, so red. It wasn't until I rotated the score that I saw that Bernstein made no lower case e s, but dragged his fountain pen up to make the capital script E that looks like a reversed 3. His name contains three of them, yet no two are alike-each e is increasingly taller and more emphatic. I am particularly drawn to the last e in Bernstein, that silent e that will not go silently, as in height it nearly attains that of the capital B, and seems poised to splinter off with the last two letters to form a new name, say-Ein(stein). Like his signature, Chichester Psalms is a work that you have to look at obliquely, before the embedded motif reveals its most beseeching meaning, before you can hear how this theme will not go silently, but splinters off to an ultimate, urgent idea, even as it is whispered.

Just forty-eight pages (forty-one proper with many pages of rich front matter), my choral score of Chichester Psalms has held my attention as keenly as a fine, dense novella. Man is roused; he's invited to the House of the Lord. (Note the passive construction: he has to be awakened, has to be called.) He walks alone, but ever with God; he wars. He asks for contrition; prays for unity. Amen. As the number of plots is finite, art depends on the telling. Laid out in three movements of paired psalms and integrated by a recurring theme-the five-note Urah, hanevel (Awake, psaltery) motif of the first movement-Chichester Psalms is, in turn, a rousing, joyful, lyrical, strident, contentious, violent, holy, humble, and ever urgent invocation for peace.

1. Invocation and invitation

Psalm 108, vs. 2: Urah, hanevel v'chinor! (Awake, psaltery and harp)

Psalm 100: Hariu l'Adonai kol haarets (Make a joyful noise unto the Lord)

I had sung Chichester Psalms before, which is not the same thing as saying I know this piece. It was fifteen years ago, I was still new to singing, and Bernstein was a pole vault over Bach and Mozart. I'm a decent sight singer (but not for Schoenberg); I'm a quick study; I love a challenge; but here, and in spite of past experience, in spite of remembering the work with great fondness, it was hard to find footing. Indeed, at the first rehearsal with Berkeley's Chora Nova, I wondered whether I had only imagined that I had sung this before, as nothing looked familiar.

Open the score of Chichester Psalms and a lion leaps out, RrraaahU An accented cymbal-tympani-glock-chime-brass-contrabass pick-up slams into the first full bar of 6/4-a percussive, instrumental Hark!-and the singers jump in Maestoso ma enérgico, percussive and full of majesty, in one of the most demanding openings ever asked of a chorus. Urah, hanevel! (Awake, psaltery!) Every clue you need to understand this piece is in this unifying five-note Urah, hanevel motif (introduced by upper voices, in unison): the urgency of the wake-up call and the dissonance that speaks to man's struggle between his more noble and savage selves.

This setting of Psalm 108, vs. 2 is only ten bars long, yet in every bar save the last, the meter changes. The meter not only changes but upshifts, from 6/4 to 3/4, to 3/8, and we scramble to stay in the groove. The rest of the line v'chinor urah! is set to a 5/4, 2/4, then a 5/8 bar. More quickening. What's so hard? Imagine you are running hurdles and the heights of the hurdles are not standard, the distance between them inconsistent. A-irah shahar! (I will rouse the dawn!) staggers across a 6/4 bar into a 2/4 that ends with rolling tympani as the entire chorus leaps to high F, Ah! Throw open your door and come on down.

Don't be daunted by all those time signatures (even though we were). …

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