To get to know Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” which Chorus Pro Musica will perform at Old South Church Oct. 28, one can start underground. The soil around Chichester is chalky, shifting and subsiding as the chalk washes out, instability that left its mark on the local cathedral. Its northwest tower partially collapsed in the 1630s; its central spire fell in 1861. Chichester Cathedral thus became a candidate for the 19th-century English fad for church restoration. That also made it a concern of William Morris.
In an 1895 letter (one of his last writings), Morris criticized plans to tear down Chichester’s northwest tower in order to rebuild it. “[A] wound inflicted in any part of such a building as one of our old cathedrals is felt throughout its whole body,” he insisted. The skepticism was customary; for nearly two decades, Morris had been the main polemicist for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, an organization he founded. To Morris, Victorian church restoration — centuries of incremental, eclectic improvements stripped away and replaced by theoretical neo-Gothic consistency, “a feeble and lifeless forgery” (according to the society’s manifesto) — had been a lucrative sham, imposing Victorian fashion and lining the pockets of Victorian architects while destroying history’s actual fabric.