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.
The campaign was one of Morris’s many lives. He was a poet and, briefly, a painter. Enamored of the creative life of the medieval era, he started Morris & Co., resurrecting the the old, hand-made decorative arts — block-printing, dyeing, weaving, embroidery, stained glass — and igniting, in the process, the Arts and Crafts movement. The constant was a disdain for contemporary society, a disgust at the suffering brought about by the Industrial Revolution. It led Morris to his most controversial conversion. He became a socialist. He was radicalized. And Morris’s forward-looking politics (most enduringly expressed in his utopian novel, “News From Nowhere”) were inseparable from his unabashedly backward-looking artistic philosophy.
The pattern was shared by Leonard Bernstein. A leftist and a progressive, Bernstein also coupled that to a conservative artistic streak. The two figures are inexact counterparts: Morris disdained religion (his anti-restoration campaign was partially fueled by his animus toward the Anglican church) while Bernstein cloaked himself in his Jewish faith; Morris’s artistic windmill was mechanized mass-production, Bernstein’s the advent of musical atonality. But the defiantly old-fashioned “Chichester Psalms” makes an appeal Morris would have recognized. Both men bolstered their politics with the past, trying to re-create that which, they thought, had been steadily eroded by the modern world: a sense of community.
“Chichester Psalms” was the product of a minor crisis. For the 1964-65 season, Bernstein took a sabbatical from conducting the New York Philharmonic in order to compose; the focus was a Broadway musical based on Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.” But the project collapsed, leaving Bernstein with dwindling time and nothing to show for it. He turned to a commission from Walter Hussey, the artistically minded dean of Chichester Cathedral.
The piece — portions of six psalms set in Hebrew over three movements — came out melodic, lyrical, triadic. “It is quite popular in feeling,” Bernstein wrote Hussey. Indeed. Much of the material originated in songs written for the “Skin of Our Teeth” musical; the outburst for male voices in the second movement — “Lamah rag’shu goyim,” “Why do the nations rage” — came from a chorus cut from “West Side Story.” Almost all of Bernstein’s concert works contain music originally intended for Broadway projects (most composers recycle and repurpose material) and the tonal vocabulary, eschewing postwar developments in modernism, was hardly unusual for Bernstein. (“As a composer,” he noted, “I am committed to tonality.”) What was unusual was Bernstein’s effort to justify it.
When The New York Times requested a summary of his sabbatical, Bernstein reported (in verse) that he had “time to think as a pure musician / And ponder the art of composition.” And, as contemporary music had ventured beyond tonality, the art had turned to science: “the fads of Dada and Chance, / The serial strictures, the dearth of romance.” Bernstein had experimented with the fads in his previous work, his Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish”), an argument with God that went from aleatoric and 12-tone bitterness to an F-major reconciliation. Bernstein initially went further down the same road — “Two long months of avant-garde wandering” — before turning back. The “Psalms” were the result. “Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square,” he defensively described them. And: “My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet. / And he stands on his own two tonal feet.”
Self-deprecating as it was, it was a line drawn, a response to a country and a world that he saw fracturing around him. Kennedy’s assassination, the Gulf of Tonkin, the increasingly difficult progress of the civil rights movement (in the midst of composing, Bernstein had traveled south to lend celebrity support to protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery) — the confidence of the early ’60s was disintegrating. In response, Bernstein would cast his lot with, seemingly, the 1930s, the era of neo-Classicism and classical-jazz hybrids, music of optimism and populism — and tonality.
It recalled the way Morris idealized the Middle Ages, a time before mechanization and the division of labor had displaced the collective power of individual creativity. Morris romanticized the handiwork of the feudal era to the point where he had to apologize for it: “I know that in those days of which I speak life was often rough & evil enough,” but “much as the world has won since then, I do not think it has won for all men such perfect happiness that we can afford to cast aside any solace that Nature holds forth to us.” The solace was pleasure in craftsmanship, countless moments of expression in stone and wood and glass that had built, for example, Chichester Cathedral. Morris would go back in time to achieve the future, reconstituting the relationship between people and labor and art in order to reset society.
For his part, Bernstein thought tonality’s ability to create a communal sense of resolution from dissonance within the concert hall could somehow seed reconciliation outside it. The idea would reach its height in Bernstein’s 1973-74 Norton Lectures at Harvard, in which he posited that tonal grammar was the basis of all true musical expression, that the modern condition could be reconciled with the seeming universality of tonal expectation. His ultimate example was Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex,” a hands-on rummage through music history, archaic materials recharged into contemporary relevance — a very Morris-like example. But Bernstein had already gathered his own ancient scriptures in “Chichester Psalms”: the Old Testament, neo-Classicism, and Broadway, a triple imprimatur.
“I love art, and I love history; but it is living art and living history that I love,” Morris once preached. “If we have no hope for the future, I do not see how we can look back on the past with pleasure.” Bernstein would have agreed. Pre-industrial arts were Morris’s touchstone, pre-serial harmonies Bernstein’s; but both found political hope in a connection to the past, trying to resolve modern difficulties by rewinding beyond them. In Chichester Cathedral and the “Chichester Psalms,” two radical traditionalists could cross paths.