Published online by Cambridge University Press: 09 April 2021
IN JULY 1965 Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia flew to England to attend the premiere of his Chichester Psalms, commissioned by Dean Walter Hussey and sung by the combined male choirs of the cathedrals of Chichester, Winchester and Salisbury. There had been a preview performance in New York a fortnight previously but I don't count that because it was with a small professional SATB chorus, lacking the unique tonal quality of an all-male ensemble featuring choirboys. When commissioning the Psalms, Walter Hussey said he hoped Bernstein would include a flavour of West Side Story. The story of how Bernstein managed to work several numbers dropped from his Broadway shows into his most popular choral work is told in my Bernstein biography.
Meeting Bernstein at his Chichester première was a pivotal moment for me, the start of the second half of my working life. I went down to Sussex quite early and spent the day with the Bernsteins in Chichester Cathedral. During a coffee break they had me laughing out loud with their account of how the mattress at the deanery where they were staying was so lumpy that it was like sleeping on grapefruit. The music-making was less cheerful. I never found out why but although Bernstein had been invited to conduct his new score he had declined, so the performance was in the hands of the local man, Chichester's organist John Birch. I didn't know Bernstein well then but I could see he was worried by what he was hearing. The choirs had spent weeks mastering the tricky rhythms, the irregular bar lengths and the Hebrew pronunciation of the texts. They were excellent but the players of the Philomusica of London (famous before the war as the Boyd Neel Orchestra) were – to use Bernstein's phrase – ‘all at sea’; it was evident as one watched the rehearsal that they had never seen the music before in their lives. The Psalms runs for only twenty minutes and British orchestras are renowned for their sight-reading skills but certain passages in that rehearsal made me acutely embarrassed.