Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. –Psalm 133:1
Leonard Bernstein was commissioned to write a work for a choir festival held at Chichester Cathedral in 1965. He was given free rein to choose the texts, and even encouraged by the Dean to include a bit of West Side Story’s style in the music. What called to Bernstein then is a message as timeless and, unfortunately, as necessary as ever – a message of ecumenism and peace. A message of finding common ground in a fractured world. He found that message in the psalms – those prayers of David held dear by Christians and Jews – and set several psalms for chorus and orchestra to create his now beloved work, Chichester Psalms.
The final movement of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms has as its text Psalm 131 and a verse from Psalm 133. Beginning in discord with a tense organ prelude that expresses varying degrees of anger and despair and hopelessness, the chaos fades away as the choir enters. Lord, Lord, my heart is not proud; I have no haughty looks. The choir sings a gently undulating tune that expresses all the hope and unabashed idealism missing in the organ’s introduction.
Bernstein, subject to years of FBI investigation for “un-American activities”, spoke, through his music, about peace and hope to a world as fraught with suspicion of “otherness” as our own. The choir ends the piece in rich harmony, singing in Hebrew Behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity, concluding in unison, Amen.
Out of chaos and conflict comes harmony and unity – in this piece anyway. Might it be so for all our country following the election, and for our world.