Learning and 'Teaching' Chichester Psalms With Leonard Bernstein

In the mid-1980s, after a long dinner party at the Leonard Bernstein residence in Manhattan, I went to the back of the apartment where Bernstein had his studio to tell him I was leaving. He was sitting behind his desk looking at a score of his Chichester Psalms. "I know that work very well," I said, with all the overconfidence of a kid in his early 20s. "I even conducted a performance of it by memory."

He lit up because he knew he had a captive audience at that moment (nothing meant more to him than his own work as a composer). He asked me with enthusiasm, coupled with a slight hint of sarcasm, whether I would stay and "teach" it to him. It was 2 a.m., and he was to conduct a read-through at the New York State Theater at 9:30 the next morning for a ballet production of that work that was in its preparatory stages. "I haven't looked at this score in years," he said. "Teach it to me."

I was suddenly terrified. This was near the beginning of my time working with Bernstein, so I did not know him as well as I would come to in later years, and I didn't feel comfortable saying no to such a request. I also had what seemed to me an important deadline of my own to finish up in these early morning hours. But I knew this was an opportunity not to be missed, so I took off my coat. "How should I go about it?" I asked.

Bernstein remained seated, and I stood in front of his desk, as he directed me to explain the first movement's harmonic and rhythmic progressions, and also to explain to him why (or if) there was an "inevitability" to every note he wrote. Oh... and since I had bragged about being able to conduct the score from memory, he claimed I must know it better than he did at this point, so he did not permit me to work from a score. I actually had not looked at the work in over a year, and was once again doubting my decision to stay.

What happened next helped shape my understanding of Leonard Bernstein, the teacher. The thing he probably loved to do more than anything else was to teach, and the personal interaction that teaching demanded was perhaps the most important part of this process to him. He had me sing through every single line, bar by bar, and tell him what each part was singing or playing... and why! I seem to recall that I was able to recreate most of the vocal and orchestral lines (a recollection which may be a kind gift of the passage of time), but I stumbled mightily on the question of why certain notes were written. Though I could give basic theoretical reasons, I could not objectively explain why each note "had" to be written the way it was.

Instead, over the course of the next two and half hours, Bernstein explained to me the thought process behind the entire first movement. Oh, how I wished I had a secret recording device in my pocket! I obviously could not take notes, because I was the one supposedly teaching him. He used the experience of personal interaction to motivate himself to think through the work again and to revisit his own composition process. He also explained to me some technical conducting tricks - such as the fact that one has to conduct the 7/4 rhythm of the first movement in a clear three (I had just been doing it as two plus one). It was a truly fascinating moment in time.

On this night, as on any Bernstein evening, there had been quite a lot of alcohol consumed. When I finally dragged myself out of there at 4:30 a.m., I couldn't believe that he was actually going to be in front of an orchestra in five hours. Somehow, and with great effort, I managed to get myself back up in time to attend the rehearsal. When I arrived, I was stunned that Bernstein was as fresh and as energetic as I had ever seen him. He conducted a masterful read-through (although I did note with some self-satisfaction that he did not conduct the 7/4 rhythm in a clear three-beat pattern, but as two plus one!).

In the years that followed, I spent many more hours with Leonard Bernstein talking about Chichester Psalms, and it is with true devotion for him and an adamant belief in the greatness of his music that I have programmed two of his works on a concert I am giving with the Amor Artis Chorus on Sunday, November 10, at the beautiful Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in Soho. The first half of the concert comprises works by Palestrina, Ives and Vaughan Williams. The second half will consist first of Bernstein's Missa brevis, which was composed in 1988 (although based partly on incidental music he had composed for a production of Jean Anouilh's play The Lark in 1955). I was working for him a lot during that period, and I spent copious amounts of time listening to his ideas for that work and also to the self-doubt that consumed him as a composer during the final years of his life. The concluding work will be his Chichester Psalms, in a version he prepared that reduces the orchestra down to organ, harp and percussion, giving it a particularly intimate feel (and of course, I will be conducting the first movement in three!)

Stephen Somary worked as Leonard Bernstein's Music Assistant from 1984 until 1990, and as Composition Assistant for Bernstein's Arias and Barcarolles and the revisions of Songfest.

For more information on the November 10 concert, Stephen Somary, and Amor Artis, visit here or call 212 874-4513.