Psalms by Bernstein Program Notes

Zodiac Suite
Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981)

A child prodigy, Williams taught herself to play piano at the age of three. She went on to write arrangements for Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and others. Ellington called her “perpetually contemporary.” She gave lessons to musicians like Thelonious Monk, and was a friend and mentor to the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie. 

In 1945 Williams wrote Zodiac Suite, a series of dedications to fellow musicians born under each astrological sign to form a set of jazz tone poems. She recorded the original trio version, with herself on piano, then made a version for chamber orchestra that was performed at Town Hall in New York. There followed full symphonic orchestrations of three of the 12 movements, which was performed by the Carnegie Pops Orchestra.

Tonight’s soloist, Aaron Diehl, appeared in the New York Philharmonic’s online presentation, “An All-American Program,” in selections from the chamber-orchestra version of the “Zodiac Suite.” Making his Philharmonic debut was Tito Muñoz, who will conduct the Oakland Symphony’s concert in May.

Much Ado About Nothing Suite, Opus 11
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)

“That boy’s talent is so great,” said Puccini of Erich Korngold, “he could easily give us half and still have enough left for himself!” A child prodigy, Korngold was born in Moravia and grew up in Vienna. At five, he was playing four-hand piano pieces with his father; at seven he started composing; at nine he played his cantata Gold for an amazed Gustav Mahler.

In 1934 Max Reinhardt invited him to Hollywood; Korngold settled permanently in the United States four years later, and a string of film scores followed: Anthony Adverse, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and King’s Row, among others. He won two Academy Awards.

Long before his film successes, Korngold was commissioned by the Vienna Volksbühne to compose music for a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in 1918. He wrote fourteen sections of incidental music, but the production was canceled.  Instead, the Schönnbrunn Palace Theatre picked it up. The composer conducted members of the Vienna Philharmonic at the first performance on May 6, 1920. It was so successful that Korngold assembled a suite he conducted the following January.

The suite begins with a lively Overture, followed by “The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber,” depicting Hero’s wedding preparations in Act III. “Dogberry and Verges” is a grotesque march. The Intermezzo accompanies Beatrice’s realization that she loves Benedick in the third act. “Masquerade” is a hornpipe that ends the play, just after Benedick’s line, “Strike up, pipers!”

Chichester Psalms
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Chichester Psalms was commissioned by the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England for its Festival in 1965. At the time, Bernstein was on a sabbatical from his duties with the New York Philharmonic and used the time to experiment. “I spent almost the whole year writing 12-tone music and even more experimental stuff,” he said. “I was happy that all these new sounds were coming out; but after about six months of work I threw it all away. It just wasn’t my music; it wasn’t honest.”

Bernstein returned to tonality and to the commission, titled Chichester Psalms, “the most accessible, B-flat-major-ish tonal piece I’ve ever written.” The text, in Hebrew, presents three complete Psalms and parts of three others. He completed the work on May 7, 1965. It was first performed with a mixed choir and the New York Philharmonic on July 15, 1965.

Joan Peyser writes: “On the surface Chichester Psalms seems almost a parody of a tonal piece: Its pitch relations are simple. Nevertheless it is difficult to perform. That is because of the presence of so many irregular meters of fives and sevens. Although there is no sustained syncopation in this apparently sacred piece, the prevalence of irregular meters contribute to a feeling of suppressed jazz.”

~ Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2022.