In the summer of 2015, I had the privilege of giving a lecture to the young musicians of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, who were, at the time, getting ready to give a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the work’s premiere. The following is a transcript of that talk, lightly edited for readability, but with all of its digressions, speculations, demurrals, and far-fetched arguments otherwise intact.
Among the roundabouts were some tentative and personal conclusions to a lot of the questions that have formed the backbone of much post-election artistic stock-taking. What do interesting times, as the phrase goes, demand from musical performance? Should music be a refuge or a mirror? Should style be a balm or a challenge? Sparring with this one particular piece, it turned out, offered ample opportunity to consider such issues. So I’ll put it here as, at the very least, a small reminder that such questions are never really academic, just easier to ignore at some times than others.
Start with a quote:
“A work of art does not answer questions: it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between their contradictory answers.”
Leonard Bernstein wrote that, in an article he published in 1965, at the end of a year-long sabbatical from the New York Philharmonic—the sabbatical during which he wrote Chichester Psalms. You’ve had some time with Chichester Psalms by now. You’ve learned it, you’ve been rehearsing it, the performance is a week away. So here’s what I’m going to ask you: what is the question you want this performance of Chichester Psalms to provoke?
I’m going to talk about my idea of a question Chichester Psalms should provoke. And I’m going to trace the rather perambulatory way that I arrived at that idea. Partially that’s for entertainment value, because the way I arrive at ideas tends to be pleasantly insane. So we’re going to talk about Victorian English socialists, the Surrealist movement, and French radicals of the 1960s. And I’ll emphasize: this is very much my path to an idea about Chichester Psalms, not Bernstein’s.
But I’m going to trace that path anyway, because it has to do with a larger concern which is, I think, crucial to the performing arts, and music in particular. And that’s what to do about history. Because if you think about every piece of music you’ll play or hear this summer, they all have one thing in common: the time in which they were created and the time in which they’re experienced is divergent—sometimes only by a few months, but sometimes by decades and even centuries. Music is something that is necessarily re-created. Chichester Psalms, the piece of music, is fifty years old; but when you perform it, or hear it, it’s not fifty years old, it’s something that’s happening right then and there, in the present. So we’re going to look at some of the history around the piece—direct and indirect—for clues as to how the piece changes as history does.
One thing about Chichester Psalms to keep in mind as we talk about it is that, because of when it was written, its vocabulary is unusually important. Chichester Psalms is a triadically tonal piece of music. Part of this had to do with the commissioning of the piece. It was commissioned by Walter Hussey, the dean of Chichester Cathedral, who was someone who loved contemporary art and wanted to bring as much of it into his church as he could. But it’s clear that Hussey wanted something in a popular vein. “I think many of us would be delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music,” he wrote. And Bernstein, as we shall see, certainly obliged on that count. But, for Bernstein himself, the fact that Chichester Psalms was a tonal, Broadway-ish piece of music actually became much of the piece’s reason for being. And that was because the time it was written—in 1965—was, in many ways, the height of the modernist era. Which meant that Bernstein was being deliberately unfashionable.
At the end of his sabbatical, The New York Times asked Bernstein to write about his year off. Bernstein was a big enough celebrity that when he gave them two articles, they both were published, on the same page. The quote we started with is from the first one. In the second one (which is in verse, because, well, Leonard Bernstein, right?) we get Bernstein’s origin story for the Chichester Psalms. He writes about how he dove head-first into every avant-garde style of music that was going around in the 1960s—atonal, aleatoric, you name it—and, instead, wrote Chichester Psalms:
But there it stands—the result of my pondering,
Two long months of avant-garde wandering—
My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet.
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.
I think the tone of that is at least a little disingenuous. Certainly, in some of Bernstein’s interviews and letters, you can get the sense that Chichester Psalms was sort of a placeholder for the more serious and substantial kind of music that he was eager to write. But in other places, you get the sense that Chichester Psalms was the statement, that this was the gauntlet Bernstein wanted to throw down. So I think it’s worth considering what question Bernstein was trying to provoke, and what question we might ask today in once again sending Bernstein’s notes and rhythms into the world.
To begin with, let’s talk about a pretty common way of thinking about Chichester Psalms. I’m going to take a roundabout way to get to it, one, because that’s more fun, but two, also because it’s a good example of how important ideas almost never, ever turn up in only one place, and how that lets you make connections that aren’t immediately apparent. And the place we’re going to start is an appropriate place, and that’s Chichester Cathedral.
One odd thing about Chichester Cathedral is that the building itself has had a long and distinguished history of falling down. Because of the local geology around Chichester, England, parts of the cathedral have repeatedly collapsed. Both of the cathedral’s towers and its spire have had to be rebuilt over the centuries. The northwest tower partially collapsed in the 1630s, but wasn’t until the late Victorian era, the late 1800s, that they got around to thinking of fixing it. Along the way, the tower became a focal point for the fight against modernism. This was because of a man named William Morris. Morris was a poet and an artist. He is most famous for kickstarting the Arts and Crafts movement, which grew out of his fascination with medieval hand-made decorative arts. He also founded a group called the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. This was in response to the Victorian habit of “restoring” (and make those scare-quotes as scary as you can imagine) old churches by rebuilding them to conform to a kind of specious stylistic consistency.
The way Morris saw it, the Victorians were taking these wonderful, ramshackle churches, the products of years of renovations and additions which formed their own, rich historical record, and replacing them with, basically, theme-park versions of Gothic architecture for no other purpose than to make Victorian architects wealthy. And so he went after this plan to demolish Chichester’s northwest tower in order to rebuild it. It was actually his last such crusade, coming just before he died.
Now, like Bernstein, William Morris was, politically speaking, a radical progressive. Morris was a socialist, and a famous one in his time. That and the Arts and Crafts movement have everything to do with each other. And, in that way, Morris’s crusade is actually an unexpected mirror of this commonplace about Chichester Psalms, which is that the comparatively conservative musical language of the piece was a deliberate and paradoxically radical response to the political atmosphere of the time. With Morris, the old-fashioned quality of his aesthetics were completely bound up in his politics, in this sense that the post-Industrial Revolution modern world had gone completely wrong. With Bernstein, in Chichester Psalms, there’s this idea that the bedrock of triadic tonality could symbolize, and even bring back, this sense of common ground that seemed to have been lost.
That’s how I’ve always thought about Chichester Psalms. But the more I think about it, the more I think that there’s another prism that this music can be refracted through, and it’s one that is equally concerned with the past, and the future, and, in a way, with breaking things down in order to rebuild them. And that’s Surrealism. Now, I should say that I don’t think that Chichester Psalms is a surrealist work of art; and I certainly don’t think Bernstein would ever identify as a surrealist, for reasons we’ll get to in a minute. But I do think that considering the piece through a surrealist lens does reveal something particular about it.
Surrealism was primarily a literary movement, and primarily French, although some visual artists and non-French people got involved with it as well. It hit its stride just after World War I, and was based on two things: the sense (a sense inculcated by the war) that society was, fundamentally, cruelly absurd, and the advent of Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the unconscious. Like its artistic predecessor, the Dada movement, Surrealism cultivated shock and scandal, but where Dada was almost anarchically iconoclastic, Surrealism, at least in theory, aimed to be more of a constructive movement. I think most of us have an idea of Surrealism, even if just from the kind of sell-out surrealism-lite of Salvador Dalí (somebody the surrealist writers came to hate). There’s the combination of dream logic and absurdist humor, the provocation for provocation’s sake, and so forth. Here’s how André Breton, who had probably the best case for being the movement’s founder, defined it in his First Manifesto of Surrealism, which he published in 1924:
SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
It’s that last clause, the one about expression being exempt from aesthetic or moral concern, that keeps Bernstein out of the surrealist camp. Everything Leonard Bernstein did had aesthetic and moral concern. But, on the other hand, Bernstein was forever attracted to projects that had at least a bit of surrealism running through them. And there’s one that has particular importance to Chichester Psalms.
One of the things Bernstein absolutely wanted to do while on his sabbatical in 1964 and 1965 was to write another Broadway show. The project was a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth. It had been a Broadway hit in 1942, and had won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The play is about the Antrobus family, a normal American family that has lived in New Jersey for thousands of years. It is strongly suggested that Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus are, in fact, Adam and Eve, and their son, Henry, is actually the biblical Cain, who murdered his brother; indeed, Henry spends most of the play beaning other people in the head with rocks.
In the first act, the Antrobus family is waiting for Mr. Antrobus to return home from the office, where he has been busy inventing the wheel, while outside, the coming ice age is rapidly freezing everything in its path. In the second act, Mr. Antrobus has been elected president of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Human, and is celebrating on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, but a giant flood is coming, and the Antrobuses (along with two of every animal) have to make their way down to the pier to escape by way of ark. In the third act, we jump forward in history again: the family—and remember, this play opened in 1942—the family emerges from the cellar of their house after a devastating seven-year war, in which, we learn, Henry Antrobus was the leader of the fascist enemy. The play ends by reprising its own opening: civilization will get rebuilt.
Throughout the play, Wilder, quite extravagantly, breaks the fourth wall, having characters talk directly to the audience, or otherwise acknowledge that the play is a play. In The Skin of Our Teeth, Sabina, the housemaid, is constantly talking to the audience, constantly telling the audience how ridiculous the play is, and how confused she is by the lines she’s supposed to be saying, and how the audience really shouldn’t take any of this seriously. At the very beginning, it’s written into the play that one of the actors misses their cue line, and the stage manager tells the actress playing Sabina to improvise, and she says:
I can’t invent any words for this play, and I’m glad I can’t. I hate this play and every word in it. As for me, I don’t understand a single word of it, anyway,—all about the troubles the human race has gone through, there’s a subject for you. Besides, the author hasn’t made up his silly mind as to whether we’re all living back in caves or in New Jersey today, and that’s the way it is all the way through.
In the second act, Sabina is supposed to seduce Mr. Antrobus, but she refuses to play the scene, telling the stage manager, “[T]here are some lines in that scene that would hurt some people’s feelings and I don’t think the theatre is a place where people’s feelings ought to be hurt.”
By the third act, this sort of blurring of the line between theatrical and actual reality gets quite extensive: the stage manager comes out to announce that some of the actors have come down with food poisoning, and that some of the crew are going to take their place, &c., &c. In other words, The Skin of Our Teeth was probably the closest mainstream American theatre had ever gotten to Surrealism at the time.
So this is the play that Bernstein took a year off in order to turn into a musical. And he failed. The project fell apart. He told a colleague that it was “a dreadful experience.” Only a couple of songs ended up getting written. Here’s one of them:
So at least he got some use for it. And there’s music in the first movement and the third movement of Chichester Psalms that was originally for Skin of Our Teeth as well. Now, Bernstein, like a lot of composers, was an inveterate recycler. Still, the fact that the music for The Skin of Our Teeth changed so easily (and quickly) into the music for Chichester Psalms raises the question of whether a bit of surrealist spirit came along for the ride.
It’s worth noting, for instance, that the original surrealists gradually came around to being more politically engaged—and that, as they did, the parameters of the movement were nudged at least a little bit closer to what Bernstein was doing. Breton published a Second Manifesto of Surrealism [contained here], five years after the first one, and after the surrealists had begun to explicitly align themselves with communists and other leftist radicals. Here’s a passage from that Second Manifesto that’s worth quoting at length:
In spite of the various efforts peculiar to each of those who used to claim kinship with Surrealism, or who still do, one must ultimately admit that, more than anything else, Surrealism attempted to provoke, from the intellectual and moral point of view, an attack of conscience, of the most general and serious kind, and that the extent to which this was or was not accomplished alone can determine its historical success or failure.
From the intellectual point of view, it was then, and still is today, a question of testing by any and all means, and of demonstrating at any price, the meretricious nature of the old antinomies hypocritically intended to prevent any unusual ferment on the part of man, were it only by giving him a vague idea of the means at his disposal, by challenging him to escape to some meaningful degree from the universal fetters.
So again, that’s Breton in 1929. I would argue that’s also Bernstein in 1965, writing Chichester Psalms. “The meretricious nature of the old antimonies”—that’s exactly what Bernstein was eager to cast aside. The era surrounding Chichester Psalms was full of dichotomies: East/West, communist/capitalist, dove/hawk—not to mention tonal/atonal, avant-garde/traditional, up-to-date/old-fashioned.
Chichester Psalms, the piece that preceded it, Bernstein’s Symphony no. 3, subtitled “Kaddish,” and the piece that followed it, Bernstein’s Mass, all, in various ways, translate the kinds of attacks of conscience Breton mentions into musical performance. And, in Chichester Psalms, the place where that attack of conscience happens is the place we’ve been talking about, the second movement, which Bernstein described as a contest between “fear and faith.” And Bernstein’s way of cutting across those dichotomies was to cast his musical lot decisively with tonality, both because of its archetypal aura and because it was the vocabulary that was, for him, the most intuitive and psychologically direct—qualities that the surrealists would have recognized and appreciated. (As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that the second movement is also a contest between successful Bernstein and unsuccessful Bernstein: the music recycled from The Skin of Our Teeth gives way, in the middle section, to music that was originally written for West Side Story. The surrealists would probably also have appreciated the Freudian subtext of that.)
Now, so far, we’ve been dealing with what is really at least somewhat ancient history, for you and even for me. William Morris is long gone. The surrealists had their heyday before World War II. And Chichester Psalms is 50 years old. But there was something else going on fifty years ago that maybe gives us a hint as to how and why we perform Chichester Psalms today—how we decide what question the piece should provoke.
So I want to introduce one more person into this drama, and that’s a Belgian-born thinker named Raoul Vaneigem. Vaneigem became well-known in the 1960s, right around the time of Chichester Psalms, when, along with a man named Guy Debord, he was one of the intellectual forces behind a movement called the Situationist International. The SI was a radical group, but most of their critique and activity was in some way based around performance. Debord put it this way:
The situationist movement can be seen as an artistic avant-garde, as an experimental investigation of possible ways for freely constructing everyday life, and as a contribution to the theoretical and practical development of a new revolutionary contestation.
Their main idea was that the control that those in power maintained over those without power was, basically, something that was itself performed. They called it the “spectacle”—an advanced, up-to-date version of the bread and circuses of ancient Rome. Entertainment, mass media, advertising—all of it, according to the Situationists, is part of the spectacle, and it conditions us and frames our relationship with society in such a way that we are distracted and prevented from changing the framework of that society in any meaningful way.
One of their favorite ways of critiquing the spectacle was what they called détournement, literally “rerouting,” in which they would hijack mass media artifacts and alter them: add the soundtrack of one film to the images of another, or add different text to the visual component of an advertisement, and so forth. It was a way of re-enacting the rituals of the spectacle, but in a satirical way that brought to the fore the spectacle’s artificiality and mendacity.
The Situationist International reached its apex of influence and notoriety with the demonstrations and rebellion that swept through Paris in 1968. After that, the group kind of faded away, although many of its thinkers and a lot of its ideas continue to have an effect. It is fair to say that the SI would have regarded Chichester Psalms as bourgeois, sentimental claptrap. But, from fifty years away, you can at least see the ideas and personalities glance off of each other, ricocheting through the same zeitgeist.
This is Vaneigem writing about the effect of the spectacle, in an article called “Basic Banalities” that was published in the SI’s “central bulletin” in 1963:
There is a place where you create yourself and a time in which you play yourself. The space of everyday life, of our true realization, is encircled by every form of conditioning. The narrow space of our true realization defines us, yet we define ourselves in the time of the spectacle. To put it another way: our consciousness is no longer consciousness of myth and of particular-being-within-myth, but rather consciousness of the spectacle and of particular-role-within-the-spectacle.
That’s a little hard to parse, but think about it for a while and you realize that it’s as good a description as any of Bernstein’s artistic struggle in the 1960s: authentically being versus elaborate role-playing. And one could make a case that there’s at least a whiff of détournement in Chichester Psalms and its repurposing of Broadway pop music into something sung by choirboys in an English cathedral. That’s actually a pretty efficient way of undermining the dividing lines between high and low, and classical and pop, and sacred and secular—just the sort of categorizations that had critically plagued Bernstein for his entire career.
Here’s something on a deeper level. Remember that Bernstein had explicitly described Chichester Psalms in terms that set it against the serial, twelve-tone styles of composition that were ascendent in the avant-garde at the time. Well, Chichester Psalms might be tonal, but there’s some interesting stuff going on under the hood. Take that Skin of Our Teeth number that’s now the setting of Psalm 23. Bernstein keeps introducing all these new chromatic pitches:
By the time the second movement gets to the downbeat of measure 11, we’ve heard 11 of the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale. You’re left waiting for the 12th pitch, the F-natural, to complete the aggregate. And it doesn’t show up. Not at first, anyway. But when the movement shifts over to Psalm 2, with the nations raging so furiously together, the tonality shifts to A-minor—and that F-natural shows up almost immediately:
Now, of course, what happens next is that those two different musics then overlap with each other—which means that the F-natural is suddenly there, to complete the aggregate, to bring all twelve tones together. And (as long as we’re reading into things) what’s the line that it happens on?
Ta’aroch l’fanai shulchan
Thou preparest a table before me
In the presence of mine enemies
But back up again: this is awfully speculative. Making Chichester Psalms into some sort of Situationist subversion is fun (and I do think it tells us something about the piece), but it’s a stretch. And that’s why I wanted to talk about Raoul Vaneigem: because, interestingly, Raoul Vaneigem himself told us exactly why it’s a stretch—and, by extension, what that might mean for a performance of Chichester Psalms now, as opposed to 1965.
In 1970, just as he left the Situationist International, Vaneigem was commissioned by a publisher to write a book on Surrealism suitable for high school students; so, in the space of two weeks, he dashed off the book, which he called A Cavalier History of Surrealism. It is a marvelous little book, a perfect example of how useful it can be to have something described to you by a smart person who doesn’t like it.
Because Vaneigem was, ultimately, profoundly disappointed in the surrealists, for their sometime political callowness, for the way they used aesthetics as a substitute for direct action, for the way in which their movement was, in the end, co-opted and tamed by the market. But it’s one particular criticism of the way Surrealism looked back into history that is particularly pertinent to Chichester Psalms, and what sort of question it should provoke. This is Vaneigem writing:
After Dada’s failure, Surrealism for its part renewed ties with the older tradition [Romanticism]. It did so, however, just as though Dada had never existed, just as though Dada’s dynamiting of culture had never occurred. It prolonged the yearning for transcendence, as nurtured from de Sade to Jarry, without ever realizing that the transcendence in question had now become possible. It curated and popularized the great human aspirations without ever discovering that the prerequisites for their fulfillment were already present. In doing do, Surrealism ended up reinvigorating the spectacle, whose function was to conceal from the last class in history, the proletariat, bearer of total freedom, the history that was yet to be made.
In other words, the problem was that the surrealists were wasting their energy envisioning a better world when everybody already knew what a better world looked like. Two world wars and a worldwide economic depression had made it pretty clear what needed to be fixed. To go back and re-fight the battles of the 19th century wasn’t a solution, it was a distraction.
Here’s the thing: I think you can make a very similar critique of Chichester Psalms. And I think Bernstein, in a way, knew it. A few years after Chichester Psalms, also in 1970, Bernstein stood up not very far from here and addressed the incoming class of the Tanglewood Music Center. [Bernstein later published the address in his book Findings.] And he talked about his own class—the first TMC class, in 1940—and he described it this way:
We who were sitting there in 1940 were a generation of hopers…. We kids who had spent our college days marching with strikers, giving one benefit after another for one cause or another—we kids were committed to the future. We had hope.
And then Bernstein talks about the hopelessness that he sees in the kids of 1970. He even compares it to the shift in musical styles: how in 1940 they still had the tradition of the symphony as a statement of musical nobility, but how, thirty years later, there’s no single tradition anymore, and none of the avant-garde music being made is noble. That’s the term he uses, “noble.” And then he says:
I have nothing brilliant or immortal to say to any of you who feels despair. Of course, I can reach back to Serge Koussevitzky and retrieve his sense of commitment, his dedication and patience, and pass them on to you. I can do that, and I do do that; and I wish that were enough—now, thirty years later. But it isn’t enough, we know that; something has changed.
And one of the things that changed, and continues to change, is the questions that need to be asked. Which, in a strange way, is why we are compelled to keep performing Chichester Psalms—or any other piece. Because there are always new questions that need to be provoked. There are new questions that the piece can and ought to provoke.
When you think about it, Bernstein, in 1965, writing Chichester Psalms, was asking the same question that William Morris was asking, that the surrealists were asking, that the TMC class of 1940 was asking: what would a better world, a more just and equal world, look like, and how might we get there? But, fifty years later, I think the question that Chichester Psalms should provoke is something closer to what Raoul Vaneigem was asking.
Because, fifty years later, we know what stands in the way of a better world. We burn through our resources, we hang on to our privileges, we indulge our fears and prejudices, and we deny others their humanity. We know what we have to change. And the question that I think a performance of Chichester Psalms—what any musical performance, really—ought to provoke now, today, is the harder question, the more acute question, the more critical question: if we know what to do, why haven’t we done it yet?