‘The swinging Dean peps up the Psalms’: Walter Hussey and Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms

[An edited extract from my recent book on Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts.]

Walter Hussey is chiefly known for an extraordinary sequence of commissions of contemporary art and music, firstly for St Matthew’s church Northampton from 1943 and, between 1955 and 1977, for Chichester Cathedral of which he was Dean. Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Lennox Berkeley, Gerald Finzi, Michael Tippett all produced work for Northampton in the space of four astonishing years; in Chichester, there was John Piper, Sutherland again, Marc Chagall, William Walton, and Lennox Berkeley again, to name only a few.

What motivated Hussey to do this? Although he had few practical examples to follow in the 1940s, he was not without intellectual backing. ‘The general notion among pious folk in the nineteenth century’ wrote the Anglican priest Percy Dearmer in 1924 ‘was that art was rather wrong, while the poets and artists of Europe generally considered that religion was rather stupid.’ However, now, he thought, ‘ we are discovering that in [the arts] we touch the eternal world – that art is in fact religious. The object of art is not to give pleasure, as our fathers assumed, but to express the highest spiritual realities. Art is not only delightful: it is necessary.’

Hussey in his study in the early 1970s. Image copyright Sussex Life, all rights reserved.

Hussey’s career is a case-study in the practical working-out of these assumptions of the catholic wing of the Church of England about the nature of the arts and their relationship with the church.

Hussey himself argued that a piece of religious art had two purposes: Firstly, ‘it should convey to those who see it some aspect of the Christian truth.’: the artist ‘may, by forcing us to share his vision, lead us to the spiritual reality that lies behind the sounds and sights that we perceive with our senses.’ As well as conveying truth, for Hussey the work itself was an offering, as was the effort of the artist in making it. The work of art ‘should adorn God’s House with as worthy an offering of man’s creative spirit as can be managed’. Whatever pleasures the artist gained from their work, ‘whether he is entirely conscious of it or not, [he does it] because it is an act of worship which he must make.’

What did the patron owe the artist? ‘He must try to understand the artist’s point of view, always expressing his thought honestly, but at the same time willing to learn and to trust the artist.’ For there to be that trust, was it necessary that the artist be a Christian believer? The logical conclusion of Hussey’s view of the work of art itself – that the making of art was intrinsically religious – suggested not. What was required from the artist was not belief, but ‘real sympathy with the work [and] an ability and willingness to understand from the inside.’

Why Bernstein?
Hussey’s patronage was marked by a mixture of daring – a simple inability to know his place as a provincial parish priest – and a certain naivety as to the ways in which artists and composers were accustomed to working. The Chichester Psalms are a fine example, since it was (on the face of it) rather improbable that a figure such as Bernstein could be persuaded to write for Chichester, particularly for the size of fee available. US-based and infrequently in the UK, with little record in religious music, and a rich man by virtue of the success of West Side Story, Bernstein was an unlikely choice.

New in the early 1960s was the annual Southern Cathedrals Festival. In many ways similar to the more famous Three Choirs Festival, the event had been revived in 1960 by Hussey and the cathedral organist John Birch, in partnership with their counterparts at Salisbury and Winchester. The Three Choirs festival had a long history of commissioning new pieces of music, by Elgar, Vaughan Williams and many others. In this light, Hussey and Birch were in 1963 looking for a name to approach.

Bernstein’s musical West Side Story had first been performed in the UK in 1958, and proved so popular that it ran at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London until the summer of 1961. One of Birch’s teaching colleagues at the Royal College of Music sat in the orchestra pit for several successive performances during a later tour, so taken was he with Bernstein’s music. Not only did the work have popular appeal. For Birch it seemed ‘suddenly that here was the last opera that Puccini hadn’t written – it seemed a natural progression straight through.’

In the UK, only recently emerged from post-war austerity, Bernstein the wealthy and flamboyant conductor from New York had star quality. Hussey had the opportunity to see something of the star in his home environment. A year or two earlier Hussey had attended a New York Philharmonic rehearsal and was briefly introduced to the maestro at the podium. Nothing followed from this initial meeting until late 1963 when Hussey and Birch fell to thinking about the 1965 festival. Birch thought a piece ‘in a slightly popular style’ (Hussey’s words) would be appropriate, but their accounts differ as to who first thought of Bernstein.

Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic during a rehearsal for TV, 1958. Image by Bert Biall, via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 2.5

Birch recalled that Hussey thought Bernstein too busy and that he would never accept. In this Hussey was realistic. Bernstein was firmly established as one of America’s foremost conductors, both with the enormous success of West Side Story, and in his more ‘serious’ compositions. However, so occupied was he with conducting that he had completed only one composition since 1957, and had no established body of religious music behind him of which Hussey was likely to be aware. He was also a Jew.

Apparently prevailed upon by Birch to try, against the odds, Hussey wrote to Bernstein in December 1963, outlining the nature of the event and the composition of the three choirs. The festival was ‘concerned to a great extent with the wealth of music written for such choirs over the centuries’, he wrote, ‘but I am most anxious that this should not be regarded as a tradition which has finished, and that we should be very much concerned with music written today.’ The suggestion for a text was the second Psalm, either unaccompanied or with orchestra or organ. There would be a fee, ‘to the best of our resources’.

The making of the Psalms
Bernstein replied almost immediately, in January 1964. Honoured by the invitation, he was interested in Psalm 2, although he wanted to remain free to set something else. Hussey wrote again in August with further details of the choirs, and of the available orchestra. Before this point in time, Bernstein had had little exposure to the English cathedral tradition, or to liturgical music in general. Despite this, Hussey was keen to stress that Bernstein should not feel hemmed in by the tradition. As well as maintaining the traditional repertoire, the Festival ‘must also provide new works in new idioms to keep the tradition really alive. I hope you will feel quite free to write as you wish and will in no way feel inhibited. I think many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music.’ In a later letter he added that ‘The work would not be performed during any sort of religious service and I firmly believe that any work which is sincere can suitably be given in a cathedral and to the glory of God.’

By December, Hussey had heard nothing more directly from Bernstein since February, and was beginning to become anxious. Could Bernstein let him have at least a title and a description, he wrote? ‘I have a horrid fear that you will be regarding me as an arch nuisance’ he added, ‘but I am most eager that we should have the work ….. in time to learn and rehearse it properly before the Festival.’ February 1965 came and still no news; now the publicity could wait no longer, and Birch was pressing Hussey ‘constantly’ for the necessary information, so Hussey wrote once again.

This time Bernstein replied promptly, having found a solution. It is not clear whether Hussey ever knew it, but the Chichester Psalms were a means for Bernstein to salvage something from a sabbatical year from the New York Philharmonic that had gone wrong. Bernstein’s project for his sabbatical had been a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth, which was abandoned late in 1964. On 25 February Bernstein wrote to say that he had been on the verge of disappointing Hussey when ‘suddenly a conception occurred to me that I find exciting’: a suite of psalms, all in their original language: ‘I can think of these Psalms only in the original Hebrew’. Bernstein was able to describe the music for these ‘Psalms of Youth’ as ‘all very forthright, songful, rhythmic, youthful’, at least in part because much of it had already been written for The Skin of Our Teeth. All the basic melodic material was in fact derived from the musical, with Bernstein able to find Psalm texts to substitute for the musical’s libretto. By some remarkable coincidence Bernstein had also been able to reuse a chorus cut from West Side Story: a fight scene with the lyrics ‘Mix – make a mess of ’em! Make the sons of bitches pay’ became ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together’ in the second movement. Hussey’s ‘touch of West Side Story’ was much more than he could have expected.

Having established with Hussey that there would be no ‘ecclesiastical’ objections to the use of Hebrew, Bernstein began work in earnest, and by early May the piece was finished, and the choral parts on their way. ‘I am pleased with the work’ Bernstein wrote, ‘and hope you will be, too; it is quite popular in feeling (even a hint, as you suggested, of West Side Story), and it has an old-fashioned sweetness along with its more violent moments.’ The ‘Psalms of Youth’ title had now been dropped – the piece was much too difficult, Bernstein thought, to be badged as a piece for young performers. Would Hussey object, he asked, if the piece was in given its first performance in New York a few weeks earlier than at Chichester? After some consultation with Birch, Hussey relented: he was pleased with the new name and (understanding something of the pressures under which a composer worked) wanted to keep Bernstein happy, particularly as the matter of the fee was yet to be settled.

First performance
The British premiere was given by the combined choirs of Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester cathedrals on July 31st 1965. ‘I cannot begin to tell you how grateful I am’ wrote Hussey: ‘We were all thrilled with them. I was specially excited that they came into being as a statement of praise that is oecumenical. I shall be terribly proud for them to go around the world bearing the name of Chichester.’ Roger Wilson, bishop of Chichester, found the Psalms a revelation; unsurprisingly so, as Bernstein’s psalms were far from the tradition of daily Anglican chanting of the Psalms. Wilson found them ‘joyous & ecstatic & calm & poetic’, a vision of David dancing before the Ark.

Bernstein also thought the performance had gone well, although not without alarm. The orchestra had only begun to rehearse on the day of the performance, perhaps due in part to the fact that their parts were still being copied, in New York, on 30 June. ‘The choirs were a delight!’ Bernstein wrote to his secretary. ‘They had everything down pat, but the orchestra was swimming in the open sea. They simply didn’t know it. But somehow the glorious acoustics of Chichester Cathedral cushion everything so that even mistakes sound pretty.’ Bernstein was heard to mutter at the end of the rehearsal ‘all we can do now is pray.’

It would also seem that Hussey remained in possession of Bernstein’s fee. The offer of payment had been made in the first approach to Bernstein, but an amount seems not to have been settled upon. Hussey enquired about the matter of Robert Lantz, one of Bernstein’s aides, who replied leaving the matter of the fee entirely to Hussey. It would seem that Bernstein did not press the issue, and Hussey let it rest. Unlike some of the professional composers and artists with whom Hussey had worked, Bernstein was a wealthy man – West Side Story at one point earned two thousand dollars each week in royalties – and so it may simply have been that the kind of fee Chichester could have offered was not worth any dispute. Any fee that Chichester could have offered would in any case be far outmatched by later income for performing rights and from publication of the score and parts.

Authenticity, popularity and vulgarity in English church music
The commissioning of the Chichester Psalms is something of an anomaly in Hussey’s record. The sequence of Northampton commissions had all been from British composers, or non-British composers based in the UK, as were most of those for Chichester. They had all been relatively small in scale – anthems, for the limited forces of choir and organ, and designed for performance during a service of worship. All were very clearly within the idiom of ‘serious’ music, albeit in the subgenre that church music tended to be. To explain the choice of Bernstein, we must first look at two changes in Hussey’s working context.

Hussey’s last commission for Northampton had been in 1954. In the decade since, English church music had been plunged into a period of intense controversy and self-examination after the publication in 1956 of the Folk Mass by Geoffrey Beaumont. An experiment in performing the music of the mass with an instrumental band in a light music style, the Folk Mass heralded an explosion of experiments in church music in popular styles.

Reactions to these experiments varied. Some rejected such music as insufficient quality to be given as an offering in worship, or as foreign, and un-english in provenance. A second strand of reaction was to welcome this as a necessary retranslation of the church’s message into a contemporary language. Others still, whilst disliking the indifferent quality of much of the music, could accept it in the hope that it might help in reviving the church’s apparently faltering mission. The reactions to the Chichester Psalms were of all three types, and centred around three key issues: the relationship between serious and popular in music, the importance of personal and cultural authenticity, and the relationship of professional and amateur.

For the correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph, ‘here was music at once direct, virile and attractive, music whose serious underlying purpose found its natural expression in a popular imagery which could have belonged to no other age than ours.’ Some were rather less convinced. Stanley Sadie in the Musical Times thought parts of the Psalms ‘facile’, ‘just a little cheap’ and ‘very sentimental’. Wilfred Mellers, reviewing Bernstein’s own 1966 recording for CBS felt that ‘the music convinces least when it claims most; the “noble” passages are not so much West Side Story as South Pacific, too corny for cornets.’

The composer Anthony Payne made perhaps the most significant point, when reviewing two later London performances in programmes including Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington. The Psalms suffered by comparison set alongside such pieces because both Brubeck and Ellington ‘were writing at first hand in a popular style which Bernstein seems only capable of wearing like a cloak, and the gain in artistic sincerity was considerable.’ The critic Arthur Jacobs, writing for the Jewish Chronicle, objected to the piece having the ‘slick professionalism of Bernstein without much else’. For Sadie, Bernstein’s music seemed ‘perilously lacking in identity’. For these critics, in attempting to bridge two musical worlds, Bernstein had produced music authentic to neither.

The vocal score of Chichester Psalms, with dedication from Bernstein to Hussey. WSRO MS 356, all rights reserved.

By and large, however, the Psalms avoided the kind of savaging that much of the experimentation with pop and jazz in church music in the previous few years had received. The probable reasons are several. Firstly, as it was a piece designed for extra-liturgical use, it could be more successfully avoided than a setting of the Mass such as Beaumont’s.
Crucially the Psalms were well-crafted music, made by a recognised composer. Much of the criticism of church pop centred not so much on the introduction of popular style per se, but more on the fact that it was inferior music of its kind – that it was of insufficient quality.

Hussey told the Daily Mail that he had been looking for a piece that was ‘in the popular idiom without being vulgar’. The importance of this controlling, restraining influence of musical qualification was a regular note in the critical reception of figures such as Malcolm Williamson, one of the key figures in serious experimentation with popular church music. Here, wrote one critic of Williamson, was ‘an intensely intelligent and sensitive musical mind grappling […] with the problems of providing music for the Church … in a language which uses the techniques of “popular” musical experience without compromising the composer’s own high standards of taste and craftsmanship.’

Bernstein had succeeded in just this: the Psalms were ‘popular but not vulgar’, and it is in Hussey’s flirtation with popular style that we see the limits of much of the experimentation of the 1960s. Hussey could cope with the Psalms having something of West Side Story about them, as long as they were both composed and performed by serious musicians. It was a remarkable coincidence: on one side, a patron looking for something right at the edge of what was possible for the Church to accept, and on the other, possibly the only composer who could have provided it.

Further reading
A fuller version of this essay is in chapter 7 of Peter Webster, Church and Patronage in 20th Century Britain: Walter Hussey and the Arts (2017)
Humphrey Burton, Leonard Bernstein (1994).
Paul Laird, The Chichester Psalms of Leonard Bernstein (2010)
Nigel Simeone (ed.), The Leonard Bernstein Letters (2013)

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