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Morning over the bay

Bernstein’s Psalms of Peace

Plough Music Series

Colin Fields

  • Patricia

    Thank you for your inspiring articles. Shalom

The first book of Samuel tells how Saul – having disobeyed God – was tormented by an evil spirit, and sent for David, who was known as a skilled musician. “Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.” (1 Samuel 16:23)

David as musician is very present in Leonard Bernstein’s setting of five psalms, which was commissioned in 1965 for an annual music festival held at Chichester Cathedral. In specific, David’s boyhood as a shepherd is recalled in the second movement: the composer insisted that the soloist who sings the Twenty-third Psalm be a boy, and the movement opens with a rising scale on the harp. (The harp is prominent throughout the piece, and Bernstein completed the harp parts before working on the music for the choir and orchestra.) The tranquil confidence of the solo “I fear no evil, for thou art with me” is interrupted by a dissonant setting for tenors and basses of Psalm 2: “Why do the nations rage?” which in turn is overpowered by a return to Psalm 23 sung by treble voices that are “blissfully unaware of threat,” as Bernstein directed in the score. “This will be our reply to violence,” he had written in 1963, “to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

The Chichester Psalms end with words from Psalms 131 and 133 – a prayer for Israel that can be prayed with special significance today.

Let Israel hope in the Lord from henceforth and forever. 

Behold how good, and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity. 

Here the luminous second movement is performed by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, with countertenor Lawrence Zazzo as David.

"David" and sopranos (Psalm 23)

Adonai ro-i, lo eḥsar.
Bin'ot deshe yarbitseini,
Al mei m'nuḥot y'nahaleini,
Naf'shi y'shovev,
Yan'ḥeini b'ma'aglei tsedek,
L'ma'an sh'mo.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,
He leadeth me beside the still waters,
He restoreth my soul,
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness,
For His name's sake.

Sopranos (Psalm 23)

Gam ki eilech
B'gei tsalmavet,
Lo ira ra,
Ki Atah imadi.
Shiv't'cha umishan'techa
Hemah y'naḥamuni.

Yea, though I walk
Through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
For Thou art with me.
Thy rod and Thy staff
They comfort me.

Tenors and basses (Psalm 2:1-4)

Lamah rag'shu goyim
Ul'umim yeh'gu rik?
Yit'yats'vu malchei erets,
V'roznim nos'du yaḥad
Al Adonai v'al m'shiḥo.
N'natkah et mos'roteimo,
V'nashlichah mimenu avoteimo.
Yoshev bashamayim
Yis'ḥak, Adonai
Yil'ag lamo!

Why do the nations rage,
And the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together
Against the Lord and against His anointed.
Saying, let us break their bands asunder,
And cast away their cords from us.
He that sitteth in the heavens
Shall laugh, and the Lord
Shall have them in derision!

Sopranos (Psalm 23)

Ta'aroch l'fanai shulchan
Neged tsor'rai
Dishanta vashemen roshi
Cosi r'vayaḥ.

Thou preparest a table before me
In the presence of my enemies,
Thou anointest my head with oil,
My cup runneth over.

"David" (Psalm 23)

Ach tov vaḥesed
Yird'funi kol y'mei ḥayai
V'shav'ti b'veit Adonai
L'orech yamim.

Surely goodness and mercy
Shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord

stained glass window Stained glass window, by Marc Chagall, Chichester Cathedral, inspired by Psalm 150: “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.”