For reasons too complex to dwell on here, the writer of modern English church history is peculiarly reliant on biography, autobiography and memoir. Of old we knew to distrust people’s own accounts of their lives; memory sometimes plays us false. More recently we learned to suspect the conscious or unconscious construction of a life to give it coherence, a sense of purpose, even (in some cases) to cleanse it of its moral blemishes.
It is a particular perspective given only to biographers to observe the full extent to which a memoir matches the actuality of a life. Such was my experience when writing my book on Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts. Hussey left a carefully curated set of papers, under the control of his successors as dean of Chichester, and kept by the West Sussex Record Office. But they have to be read in a state of dialogue with his memoir, Patron of Art.
Hussey retired to London from Chichester in 1977, to be nearer both to his closest friends and to the capital’s galleries and concert halls. But by 1983, during which year he wrote his draft, his health had worsened and isolation set in, as his friends aged with him, and others died. It seems he met with a refusal from at least one publisher, but he had some friends still, among them the media baron Hugh Cudlipp, who had proved an ally after retiring to Chichester. Cudlipp, having read the draft, wrote to his friend the publisher George Weidenfeld, recommending a book of ‘unusual and absorbing interest, essentially about the great artists of our time.’
How influential Cudlipp’s intervention was, we do not know, but the book was accepted, and it appeared in March 1985 at a price of £12.95 (about £34 today), accompanied by a BBC television interview. Hussey himself bought a remarkable 500 copies, at a cost of over £3,000 even at a discount, presumably for distribution to his friends as a parting gift, an aide memoire to what he thought the great work of his life. How many he did distribute, we do not know, but almost none of his friends’ responses to it have survived, as Hussey died on 25th July.
It was quickly reviewed in the mainstream press. Copies found their way into a handful of libraries in the UK, and it has been widely cited as the principal source on Hussey’s career since. This reliance on the book is understandable, since it gives a detailed account of the making of several of his commissions, and reproduces a number of important letters and other documents. However, Patron of Art in many ways obscures as much as it reveals.
The obscurity is in part due to the writing itself, since Hussey, for all his years spent in contemplation of the beautiful, was clumsy and banal when he took up his pen. One reviewer, the poet and publisher Christopher Reid, thought Patron of Art ‘a dull and inadequate book … lacking any sustained argument, content to itemize his successes chapter by chapter as they arise, and without any serious attempt at evaluative discrimination’. We learn of an unfortunate incident with a coffee pot when Leonard Bernstein and his wife came to visit the Deanery; of the delicious meatballs that were served at Marc Chagall’s French home. Cudlipp admitted that there was a ‘parochial atmosphere which occasionally moves to the front of the stage’, but thought it important due to its ‘authenticity’. Be that as it may, though these details were those that had most impressed themselves on Hussey’s mind, the reader could have managed without them.
Hussey was also indiscriminate in his reproduction of the letters of those he had encountered, several of which are trivial. As another reviewer noted, ‘in Patron of Art Canon Hussey relives it all, reproducing a great many letters from notable people, many of them saying what a splendid fellow Walter Hussey is. Their reproduction is probably the only lapse of taste in his career.’
This lack of discrimination would be more easily excused were Patron of Art compendious, but the surfeit of information on some matters is matched by some glaring omissions.
In Patron of Art Hussey eschewed almost entirely questions of his motives for pursuing his task with such tenacity. Absent also, as his successor as Dean, Robert Holtby, observed, is any sustained theological reflection on the relationship of the arts and the church, or of truth and beauty, all questions to which Hussey’s work ineluctably and urgently gives rise. Holtby also sagely noted the lack of any sense of the place of all these works of art in the liturgical action of the church (a point which I develop here). Patron of Art also begins with the first commissions and in doing so obliterates Hussey’s formation as a lover of art and as a priest – in fact, his first 34 years.
It is also in places verifiably inaccurate in matters of fact, and almost comically unbalanced. If the decisions made by Hussey as author of Patron of Art is a reflection of his estimation of the worth of his commissions, his judgment was surely wrong in the case of the anthem Lo, the full final sacrifice, by Gerald Finzi. Patron of Art gives fully eight pages to the two visits the soprano Kirsten Flagstad made to Chichester in 1947 and 1948. The fact of a world star of Flagstad’s reputation coming to a provincial parish church was certainly notable; the repertoire, however, was not, and neither was the fact of a recital in a church; Hussey had already established a series. Hussey also devoted half a page to the seemingly minor matter of print designs for Chichester.
For Finzi, however, there is but half a sentence, for a piece of music the first page of which has been described by one of Finzi’s foremost interpreters as the ‘best thing Finzi ever wrote’. Of all the Hussey music for Northampton, it is Lo, the full final sacrifice that has entered the repertoire, along with Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb. Hussey was usually fulsome in his thanks after a first performance or an unveiling – politeness demanded it – and this was no exception. However, there is a clue as to the possible reason for Hussey’s later downplaying of the piece from Finzi himself, who had the impression that Hussey disliked it after playing the piece through at the piano. Finzi admitted that the piece ‘isn’t like Britten, for whom Hussey has a great, great admiration.’ The making of Rejoice in the Lamb, by contrast, has its own chapter, and the first one.
I’ve argued elsewhere that Hussey was an instinctive patron, acting on his instincts and his enthusiasm. This is writ large throughout Patron of Art, in which Hussey documents the episodes he treasured in the most lavish detail, while downplaying others or omitting them entirely. And the very guilelessness of Hussey’s shaping of his record is an example of a kind of instinctive, unselfconscious fashioning of the self. In Patron of Art there is little need to read ‘against the grain’ to draw out the conscious, intentional elisions and omissions of a better writer, bent on deceiving the reader. Hussey’s estimation of his career is plain to see. It is the instinctive memoir of an instinctive patron.
Church and Patronage in 20th Century Britain: Walter Hussey and the Arts is published by Palgrave Macmillan
[A short talk given to a symposium on Visual Communion, organised by Art and Christianity and held at the Bishop’s Palace in Chichester on Saturday 2nd March. On the panel with me were Frances Spalding, art historian and biographer of John Piper, and Simon Martin, director of Pallant House Gallery, where Walter Hussey’s private art collection is kept and shown. The theme was Hussey’s commissions for Chichester, and the 1966 tapestry by John Piper in particular. What follows is derived from my recent book on Hussey.]
Today I want to put Walter Hussey in theological context, and (since our theme is Visual Communion) to look in particular at his own liturgical and Eucharistic sense. In general I think that Walter Hussey is the most significant individual patron of the arts in the 20th century Church of England. Today, however, I want to suggest that Hussey was not very theologically driven, and almost entirely unliturgical, at least in relation to the visual arts.
Hussey was an instinctive patron: he knew what he liked, and went out to get it. A regular visitor to London galleries while at his first parish in Northampton, and from Chichester when dean of the cathedral, his interest in the London artistic scene was first developed when a curate in Kensington in the 1930s. He was also an assidous seeker of expert advice. His network of connections grew as he commissioned art, music and poetry for Northampton in the 1940s, which he used both as a source of intelligence and of expert witnesses whom he could use to help persuade his church council to assent to his plans. Hussey’s network was unique among provincial clergymen, and by and large he allowed it to do his thinking for him.
Even when given the opportunity, Hussey did not articulate his theology of art in any depth, but two themes emerge. Both derived from others, and neither was new in the 1940s: art as a means of instruction, of conveying a message, and art as offering.
In 1949 Hussey wrote that a piece of religious art ‘should convey to those who see it some aspect of the Christian truth.’ Speaking shortly before he retired in 1977, he argued that 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.’
The work itself was also an offering, as was the effort of the artist in making it. The artist may well enjoy the act of making, and at some level feel compelled to do it, Hussey argued, but ‘whether he is entirely conscious of it or not, [he does it] because it is an act of worship which he must make.’ Hussey was fond of quoting Benjamin Britten’s comment to him that ‘ultimately all one’s music must be written to the glory of God’. There was a pervasive sense in his thinking that the act of making was in itself religious in some way.
So much for Hussey’s theology of the arts. What do I mean by suggesting that Hussey’s approach was unliturgical in relation to the visual arts? To begin with, I certainly do not think that Hussey, as a clergyman responsible to leading liturgical worship, was unconcerned with its conduct. Woe betide the chorister with brown shoes beneath his cassock rather than the regulation black; the two boys carrying the candles in procession had to be of the same height for the visual effect. All was to be done decently and in order.
My point is rather that his patronage was purely aesthetic: the object is everything, and the context of use in which it sits – the regular worship of real people in a particular place – is largely secondary.
David Stancliffe, retired bishop of Salisbury, reviewed my book on Hussey, and made the following point, with which I largely agree:
Hussey seems to have viewed commissions in isolation rather than as part of a coherent whole. It was Coventry’s architect, [Basil] Spence, who described the building as a jewel-case for the series of commissions it contained, and in a way this is rather what Hussey’s commissions feel like.
Take, for instance, the Chagall window at Chichester, Hussey’s retirement project, which stands as a commentary on his work. The theme (which Hussey gave to Chagall) is of ‘the arts to the glory of God’, and though a beautiful thing, it is a work of art about the idea of sacred art; a piece on (or rather, in) a gallery wall, for solitary contemplation. Tucked away in the north quire aisle, it bears no relation to any chapel or altar.
In contrast, the Graham Sutherland painting Noli me tangere is on an altar, but it is not one that is used to any great extent, by virtue of its location in the building. The whole ensemble in the Mary Magdalene chapel is – to my non-specialist eye, as an historian rather than a critic – the most perfect thing in the building: altar, candlesticks, rail and painting form a perfect whole in union with the stonework and with the prevailing light. But it is something that demands to be seen, either from a distance or from close up, rather than being an invitation to prayer.
What about Piper? Surely it is ‘liturgical’, given where it is, behind the high altar? Here I turn to Hussey’s relationship to the Eucharist in particular.
Everything in Hussey’s background should have disposed Hussey to being more focussed on the Eucharist than was typical amongst Anglicans. St Matthew’s, in which Hussey’s father ministered, was founded as an Anglo-Catholic counter to the strength of the Nonconformist churches in Northampton. John Rowden Hussey had first instituted a Sunday Eucharist each week (not yet the almost universal practice that it is now), then a daily one; St Matthew’s also had reservation of the sacrament at a time when it was a highly controversial practice. In 1925 the church hosted the annual Eucharistic Congress of the English Church Union, a national celebration of Anglo-Catholic identity. Emphasis on the Eucharist was a badge of identity for a highly self-conscious movement. Nothing of this would Hussey then have unlearned when moving from Northampton to study first at Oxford and then for ordination at Cuddesdon College.
Once at Chichester, Hussey’s practice was to reserve the role of celebrant at the principal Sunday service to himself. This may have been a felt necessity, a measure of the centrality of the Eucharist to his thought and feeling. I suspect it is more likely that it was simply something he saw as central to the proper role of a dean. (It may also have been a means to avoid preaching, which was not a strength.)
In his musical commissioning for Chichester, Hussey was clearly thinking about the Eucharist, as evidenced by the commission of a mass from the American composer William Albright in 1975. There had previously been a scheme for a new setting of the communion service in English from Benjamin Britten. It was first mooted in 1967 by Britten and pursued for years by Hussey, but without success before Britten’s death in 1976.
Given all this, one might have expected Hussey, when he saw the opportunity to remake the area around the high altar at Chichester, to focus on the Eucharist in particular. I make no comment on Piper’s tapestry as a piece of work in and of itself, but a little thought experiment will make the point. If you were to take it and place it in some other place in the building, would its symbolism become unintelligible? That is, is the iconic scheme very closely tied to the altar and the work that goes on there? The answer is very clearly not, but if it was eucharistic in its content, it surely would.
(Members of my audience in Chichester made the point that the tapestry can be glossed in Eucharistic terms, which is true, particularly the figure of the cross, but the subject – the Trinity, to which the cathedral is dedicated – was suggested by Piper’s ally Moelwyn Merchant, and there is no evidence that Hussey tried to guide Piper towards a Eucharistic scheme. They also made the point that the remarkable glow of the tapestry that can be seen from the west doors draws the visitor into the building towards the altar where the most important work of the cathedral goes on. This is also quite true, but this is a much more recently recovered idea of sacred space – the notion of liturgy as pilgrimage – which was far from Hussey’s thinking.)
Fundamentally, Hussey did not start with the thought: “here is an opportunity to have a great artist respond to the fundamental liturgical act of my Church, around which my whole formation was orientated”. Instead, his first thought is: “here is a drab and dark space with an existing reredos that is of a poor standard and is out of proportion to its surroundings. Let’s make it look better.”
I argue then that though Hussey is a highly significant figure, but his patronage is centred on the artistic object itself, rather than on where it is located and to what use it might be put. His influence has been limited by the fact that, at a time when all the churches were thinking very hard about their worship – architecture, layout, words – Hussey (by and large) was not.
[It is forty years this month since the unveiling of a stained glass window in Chichester cathedral, designed by Marc Chagall. This edited extract from my book on Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester, who commissioned it, tells the story of its making.]
Hussey had begun to think more or less immediately, on his arrival at Chichester in 1955, of new stained glass for the cathedral. However, it was only after his retirement in 1977 that he achieved his goal, in between which he had commissioned work from Graham Sutherland, John Piper and many others.
The Chagall window is located in a curiously obscure area of the building. Geoffrey Clarke’s pulpit in aluminium faces out into the nave; Sutherland’s Noli me tangere is visible from the full length of the south aisle; the colours of Piper’s tapestry frame the high altar, the focus of the central liturgical work of the cathedral, and are visible from the west end. By contrast, the Chagall window is tucked away in the wall of the north quire aisle, and so the visitor to the cathedral must venture deep into the building to find it. As Robert Holtby, Hussey’s successor as dean, noted in his sermon at the service of dedication, it is also all but invisible from the outside. Inside, it is the frame or backdrop to no liturgical action, being connected to none of the chapels and their altars. As such, of all the artistic work in the building, it is most like a painting in a gallery: an object for personal viewing and contemplation, not a companion to the collective action of the congregation as the Body of Christ as it worships.
In one sense, this more detached position suits the work itself, a work of art in a church on the theme of the arts in the Church. The theme of the 150th psalm was suggested by Hussey, the common property of Hussey and of Chagall the Jew. But the subtitle – ‘The arts to the glory of God’ – suggests that the project was also a gloss on Hussey’s life’s work, which took on a valedictory quality as retirement approached. ‘True artists of all sorts, as creators of some of the most worthwhile of man’s work, are well adapted to express man’s worship of God’ he wrote to Chagall. ‘I can imagine a window showing a variety of these artistic activities all caught up in a great act of worship – Psalm 150….. it has been the great enthusiasm of my life and work to commission for the Church the very best artists I could, in painting, in sculpture, in architecture, in music and in literature.’
In the early 1950s, Chagall, after decades in Russia, Germany, France and the USA, had returned to France where he would stay for the rest of his life. This late period in the artist’s work, which was to extend for three decades, was marked both by a return to the Biblical subjects of Chagall’s Russian childhood, and a move into new media: in particular, stained glass. In 1959 he received his first commission for new glass for a church building: the cathedral at Metz. Several other such commissions were to follow; particularly notable were the twelve windows for the synagogue of the medical centre at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, completed in 1961. These windows formed the basis of a record-breaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, preceded by a similar show at the Louvre in the summer of 1961.
Hussey visited Paris to see the Louvre exhibition, and was impressed by Chagall’s handling of colour. This impression was shared by ‘sensitive and expert friends’, one of which may well have been John Piper, who had been impressed by the only other Chagall windows in an English church, at Tudeley in Kent. The other such friend may have been Robert Potter, cathedral architect, since it was Hussey who had recommended Potter as architect to Lady d’Avigdor Goldschmid, in the memory of whose daughter the Tudeley windows were made.
Others were less sure. In 1970, Hussey sought the advice of Edwin Mullins, art critic of the Sunday Telegraph, who thought rather too much attention was being paid to both Piper and Chagall and suggested several other names, including Ceri Richards, Patrick Heron, Bridget Riley and Richard Smith. But by this time, Hussey had approached Chagall; by October 1969, he understood that Chagall was considering the idea seriously with his maker of all his glass, Charles Marq, after a visit to Chichester, possibly in connection with the unveiling of the first Tudeley glass in 1967.
Hussey was accustomed to waiting for his schemes to come to fruition, but the six-year silence that then ensued must have tried even his patience. In 1975, he wrote again, stressing that time was now short, as he was to retire in 1977. Marq and his wife Brigitte then came to Chichester in April 1976, met with cathedral staff and inspected the site. Chagall was fit and active, and his wife was keen for him to take on the commission, but there would be a further delay. Chagall, it turned out, was having difficulty getting started; would Hussey go to see him?
Hussey described his difficulties in getting to France in December 1976, and in finding the Chagall’s home: a sorry tale of flight delays, linguistic incomprehension and wrong directions on a rainy night. Once there, he and Chagall conversed over a full-size drawing of the window, with Madame Chagall interpreting, and in the company of the Marqs. Chagall asked how Hussey imagined the window; Hussey ventured the idea of an array of figures representing the various arts, arranged around a central figure. It should also have the ‘rich and luscious colours’ that Hussey had been so impressed by in the Louvre. Chagall seemed to like the idea, and indeed the final design was along these lines.
This meeting seems to have released Chagall’s thinking, and the sketches were begun in January, and a maquette had been made by March. Marq sent a colour photograph of the maquette, stating that the glass work could not be finished until the summer, and possibly rather later, as a particular kind of red glass was only produced by the manufacturers at St Just twice a year. Now clear that the window would not be installed before he retired, Hussey resolved to move the matter as far on as it could be. The design was accepted by the cathedral chapter on the basis of the photograph, apparently without dissent. Both Potter and the Clerk of the Works, Eric Brooks approved the design: ‘happiness and satisfaction all round’. Even then, the window was not to be installed for over a year; it was unveiled by the Duchess of Kent in October 1978.
One critic has described the Chagall window as Hussey’s ‘crowning achievement’, which ‘immeasurably enriched the Cathedral’. Kenneth Clark thought it a ‘triumph’. How significant is the Chagall window in the history of patronage and of religious art in England? On the one hand, it is one of only two Chagall works in English churches, and the only one in a cathedral. On the other, the twelve window scheme at Tudeley is on a much larger scale, and was commissioned earlier (although the whole sequence unfolded over several years, between 1967 and 1985). Neither was particularly early in Chagall’s work in glass.
The Chagall commission shows the limits of Hussey’s engagement with the very contemporary in art as he had grown older. The commissions of Henry Moore and Sutherland at Northampton were of relatively unknown young artists by a young provincial priest, which provoked scandalised reactions amongst press and public. The Chagall commission is by one old man of an even older man, who was still producing fine work, but who had long since ceased to be in critical favour. The window provoked no particularly adverse reaction: there was little to fear from Chagall in 1978.
Chagall was also now a very expensive man to hire; the eventual cost of the commission was in excess of £20,000, not including fees and expenses for Chagall and Marq. For previous commissions, Hussey had been supported financially by either a collecting box, as at Northampton, or by the private funds of a donor connected with the church (as with Moore at Northampton, and Cecil Collins at Chichester). The Friends of the cathedral had also funded the Sutherland painting, copes from Ceri Richards, and the Piper tapestry. In the case of Chagall, Hussey had assured the Chapter that he would not be calling on Chapter funds. Not only that, but he had also undertaken not to approach any Chichester people who had not yet contributed to the restoration appeal for the cathedral fabric, or any trusts and charities that might support it. Hussey was thus obliged to seek the aid of trusts that specialised in art, with or without any particular connection with the churches. The target was met, with a significant contribution from Hussey himself (£4,000), as well as public funds from the Arts Council. In this, Hussey moved some way from his earlier model of funding, in which a local church community commissioned a work of art and covered the costs in its own strength. Both models of patronage have survived him.
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’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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hussey was ‘an important figure in 20th-century art and music’ and responsible for commissioning such figures as Benjamin Britten, Edmund Rubbra, Leonard Bernstein, Lennox Berkeley, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, and Marc Chagall. My book provides ‘some remarkable illumination as to how this striking body of work came about’. It ‘does a great job in following the history of Hussey’s activity and putting it in the right context’, and not only for the big names: ‘part of the fascination in the narrative is the list of less iconic works which Hussey also commissioned’.
It is a ‘a fascinating and illuminating read… a highly readable, well researched and engagingly written examination of exactly how these works and many others came into being’. Readers should ‘persuade your local library to get a copy’.