Partial notes for
The College Choir
April 11, 2008
Temple B’nai Israel

Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) ranks as one of the foremost contributors to a distinctively American brand of twentieth-century art music. Much like his contemporaries George Gershwin (1898-1937) and Aaron Copland (1900-90), Bernstein saw no qualitative distinction between serious and popular music, and sought to develop a national repertoire that would appeal to music experts and novices alike. His remarkably diverse oeuvre includes three symphonies, songs, musicals, ballets, and two works that surely stand as cornerstones of American history: the musical West Side Story (1957) and the film score for On the Waterfront (1954).

Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Bernstein was a piano prodigy, as comfortable with jazz as he was with Beethoven. He entered Harvard University at age 17, where he studied composition with Walter Piston and conducting with renowned Boston Symphony Orchestra director Sergey Koussevitzky. Bernstein achieved his first brush with fame quite by accident in 1943 as a last-minute substitute for the regular conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The hugely successful radio broadcast of this concert ignited Bernstein’s conducting career, and he would be installed as the orchestra’s head in 1956, remaining there until 1969. Many of the recordings that Bernstein made with the New York Philharmonic and numerous other orchestras throughout his career are still considered definitive performances today.

The charismatic Bernstein loved to talk and to write about music as much as he enjoyed creating and performing it. Unlike some of his avant-garde contemporaries, Bernstein embraced, rather than shunned, the American public. Beginning in 1958, his Young People’s Concerts, which the composer described as “among my favorite, most highly prized activities of my life,” offered young adults an exhilarating introduction to the world of classical music. Perhaps Bernstein’s fellow American composer, Ned Rorem (b. 1923), said it best: “Bernstein does not explain; he reveals.”

In the 1990s, the Music Division of the Library of Congress established the Leonard Bernstein Collection as part of the American Memory Project. This collection includes over 400,000 letters, photographs, music scores, recordings, and other source materials, all intended to preserve and carry on Bernstein’s unique legacy. Much of the Bernstein Collection has been digitized, and is readily accessible through the Library of Congress web site.

The 1960s were a difficult decade for Bernstein the composer. Indeed, disenchanted with the American avant-garde’s ongoing fascination with serialism and twelve-tone music, Bernstein shut down creatively for the first time in his career. While on a sabbatical leave from the Philharmonic for the 1964-65 season, he accepted a commission from the Dean of Chichester Cathedral to compose a new work for an upcoming choral festival in England. The result was Chichester Psalms, a three-movement work with Hebrew text originally scored for mixed choir, boy soprano, strings, trumpets, trombones, harps, and percussion, and later arranged for a chamber orchestra as performed tonight. The work’s festival premiere took place at Chichester Cathedral on July 31, 1965.

The first movement opens with an angular presentation of a verse from Psalm 108: “Awake, psaltery and harp!” The quartal intervals have been likened in sound to the tuning of harp strings. Loud, close dissonances and irregular metrical patterns create a sense of excited anticipation, soon to be unleashed with the entrance of the male voices and the first line of Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands.” The insistent rhythmic pulse, organized into a jaunty pattern of 2 + 2 + 3, shows no letup through the text’s “boisterous” call to “Enter into His gates with thanksgiving.” Following a brief but highly dissonant instrumental interlude, the choir concludes the movement with a rousing return to the movement’s main chordal fanfare.

The second movement, which adopts the complete text of Psalm 23, begins with a lyrical melody for soprano, with the harp as the sole accompaniment. The sopranos, followed by the altos, gently receive the melody and present it quasi-fugally, only to be interrupted by the men’s “Allegro feroce” on the first line of Psalm 2: “Why do the nations rage?” Bernstein pushes the tenors and basses to the extremes of their respective vocal ranges. The subsequent re-entrance of the women’s voices and soloist provide a brief respite from the music’s sheer brutality, but the fragmented motives of the “Allegro feroce” in the orchestra make it clear that the conflict continues.

The instrumental introduction to the third movement sets up a new sonic world, even as the tuning theme from the first movement returns, now even more dissonant than before. Following an uneasy pause, a new flowing melody enters in the men’s voices, followed by the women. The ensuing dialogue on the complete text of Psalm 131, presented in lush overlapping phrases, leads to a brief wordless presentation of the melody and, finally, a return to the music of the work’s opening, set for unaccompanied choir. The music comes to a peaceful close, the chorus ending on a unison pitch on the text “how pleasant it is for all men to dwell together in unity. Amen.”


As the most prominent composer of Italian opera in the second half of the nineteenth century, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) represented the culmination of the esteemed bel canto (“beautiful singing”) tradition of Italian opera established earlier in the 1800s through the work of the composers Giacomo Rossini (1792-1868), Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), and Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35). Throughout his entire career Verdi would focus almost exclusively on operatic composition, producing about 26 operas over an active span of 54 years.

Born in northern Italy in the small town of Busseto, Verdi exhibited exceptional musical abilities at an early age. His family was very poor, but with his father’s encouragement Verdi moved to the city of Milan, home of the prestigious La Scala opera house. In one of the most famous ironies in classical music history, Verdi failed his piano entrance exam to Milan Conservatory, forcing him to study composition privately with the financial aid of his new father-in-law, a rich merchant. The modest success of his first Milanese opera, Oberto (1839), soon led to commissions for Nabucco (1842) and Ernani (1844), which positioned Verdi on the international scene as a composer of great promise.

Throughout his career Verdi would always be attracted to libretti of the highest literary quality. Indeed, as a gifted dramatist he preferred to set stories filled with strong emotions, violent contrasts, and lots of action, and he insisted on hiring singers who were also good actors. In striving for complete musical and dramatic effectiveness and continuity, Verdi shunned unnecessary stops in the action onstage. While his Italianate gift for melody made him beloved to singers and audiences alike, he never catered to stars’ demands for empty virtuosic showpieces. Verdi would also codify the standard relationships between voice types and roles that would characterize the remainder of the century: sopranos and tenors as the main love interests, with baritones the most frequent rivals for the sopranos’ affections, and basses as authority figures, villains, or comic characters. Similarly, in many Verdi operas mezzo-sopranos take on significant roles, in a tradition initially launched by Rossini. All of these traits may be found in Verdi’s three great collaborations with the librettist Francesco Maria Piave: Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (1853), and La traviata (1853). Following the success of Aida (1871), which had been commissioned for the opening of the Suez Canal, Verdi entered a self-imposed retirement, but emerged a decade and a half later to compose his two late Shakespearean masterpieces, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). Verdi would die a wealthy man, and left most of his money to a retirement home that he founded for aged musicians in Milan known as the Casa di Riposo. This home still exists today.

Of all of Verdi’s early operas, it is Nabucco (1842) which stands most closely associated with the Italian struggle for independence and unification: the Risorgimento (Reawakening). Throughout much of the nineteenth century Italy consisted of a series of small, separate states, many of them under oppressive Austrian rule. In 1860, the Austrians were finally ousted, and Italians declared a new independent and unified Kingdom of Italy. While Verdi never became an overt political activist, it is clear that he felt strongly about the Italian nationalist cause. He accepted an invitation to serve as a member of the first Italian Parliament in 1861; more importantly, however, many of Verdi’s Risorgimento-era operas (including Nabucco) reveal sensitive and deeply felt explorations of themes of political and social oppression. The Italian people’s close identification with Verdi as a symbol of Italy’s struggle for independence coalesced into the rallying cry “Viva Verdi!” (“Long live Verdi!”), in which “Verdi” could also be understood as an acronym of the future King of Italy’s name: Vittorio Emanuelle II, Re d’Italia.

In the 1840s – the decade in which Nabucco premiered – operas were subject to the extreme censorship of the Austrian state, typically on religious or political grounds. In Milan, censors might decide to purge the libretto of any questionable references before allowing an opera to be staged; they also frequently attended dress rehearsals to determine whether any aspects of the staged production might prove potentially subversive. It remains impossible today to determine whether any opera performances drove specific political uprisings or unrest. What is clear is that generations of Italians found something intensely personal at stake in Verdi’s music from the 1840s, particularly in the choruses.

Why did the Italians hold such an emotional investment in Verdi’s choruses? First, in his earliest operas Verdi elevated the chorus from its former decorative role to one as an active participant in the events on stage. Second, the very act of choral singing frequently invokes an assumption of solidarity, of united beliefs and goals. Moreover, many of Verdi’s so-called “patriotic” choruses feature extended moments of unison singing, as well as tunes easily remembered and sung by amateurs. The “Va, pensiero” chorus from Nabucco reigns as the most frequently cited piece in this patriotic vein. Sung by a chorus of captive Hebrew slaves as they lament their lost homeland of Jerusalem, “Va, pensiero” embodies a theme of unjust oppression with which every one of Verdi’s Italian contemporaries could identify. Indeed, the opera’s setting in a distant time and place may well have allowed its subversive themes to get past the eyes and ears of government censors. The chorus begins with a sweeping melody sung in unison over pulsating sixteenth notes in the orchestra, thus establishing an immediate impression of sonic, and implied political, unity. The continuous pulsations create a sense of rising urgency for action, brought to a climax when the chorus finally breaks into harmonized parts on the words “Arpa d’or dei fatidici vati.”

One month after Verdi’s death in 1901, per the composer’s own instructions, a funeral procession accompanied the caskets of Verdi and his late wife to their final resting place at the Casa di Riposo. A crowd estimated to contain anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 people lined the streets to pay homage to their national hero. Despite Verdi’s request that no music be sung or played at his funeral, the strains of “Va, pensiero” could be heard throughout the caskets’ route: from an 800-member choir led by the great conductor Arturo Toscanini to spontaneous performances by spectators along the way.
— Elizabeth Lorenzo, PhD 2008 all rights reserved