Leonard Bernstein by Paul de Hueck Courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office
Leonard Bernstein by Paul de Hueck. Courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office.

Last month saw the culmination of the Bernstein in Chichester Festival with the sublime and historic performance of the Chichester Psalms on 24 November in Chichester Cathedral by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop, herself a protégé of Leonard Bernstein, and the choirs of Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester Cathedrals.

The Bernstein in Chichester Festival has been an outstanding success, due in no small part to the hard work and dedication of Emma-Jane Wyatt and Edward Milward-Oliver, the festival organisers. It has been a pleasure to work with them both and it has been wonderful to have West Sussex archives playing such an important part in all of this.

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Walter Hussey

West Sussex Record Office was established as the Diocesan Record Office in 1949 and amongst our many holdings are the papers of Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral between 1955 and 1977. Hussey was a dedicated and enthusiastic patron of the arts throughout his time at Chichester. His archives include correspondence and papers about his own collections and about the many artworks that he commissioned from well-known composers, sculptors, artists, poets and writers.

In 1963 Walter Hussey wrote to Leonard Bernstein and asked him if he would write a new choral work for the Southern Cathedral Choirs Festival in 1965, an annual event that still takes place today. West Side Story had opened in the UK in 1958 to great acclaim and Bernstein was at the height of his fame as a composer, conductor, musician and teacher, who has left an enduring legacy that continues to this day.

The Walter Hussey papers tell the story of how the Chichester Psalms came to be writtenHussey 356b reduced and of its first performance in Chichester Cathedral on 31 July 1965. Bernstein’s letter to Hussey on 24 February 1965 describes how he was on the verge of writing ‘a sad letter saying that I could not find in me the work for your Festival when suddenly a conception occurred to me that I find exciting’. He goes on to say that the music will be ‘very forthright, songful, rhythmic, youthful’ and that the psalms themselves will be sung in the original Hebrew. Subsequent letters record his progress with the work which he describes as ‘quite popular in feeling’ with ‘even a hint, as you suggested, of West Side Story’. He later sent Hussey a score with a guide to the pronunciation together with instructions for the performance which he says will need a large percussion group, more strings, three trumpets and a harp. He describes the world premiere of the piece in New York on 15 July 1965 and the arrangements for his travel to Chichester with his wife and children for the UK Premiere.

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Dedication to Hussey from “Lenny”

A strong friendship and a deep mutual respect appears to have developed between the two men and on the eve of his departure to the US, Bernstein told Hussey that ‘in this last hour I somehow wanted to talk to you again, to thank you, not only on a social level, but on the deepest personal one, for all the things you are, do, and stand for. I shall carry sweet memories of Chichester for a long time’.  Bernstein’s wife, Felicia, wrote in a similar vein that ‘we will all remember Chichester for many reasons but the main reason is you’.

Whilst these letters from Bernstein reside in the Hussey Archives at the Record Office, those that Hussey wrote in return are now part of the Bernstein Archives in the Library of Congress. They have all been brought together in The Leonard Bernstein Letters edited by Nigel Simeone who gave a fascinating talk on ‘Bernstein, Hussey and the Chichester Psalms’ to an enthralled capacity audience at the Record Office on 18 September. Accompanying Nigel’s talk was an exhibition curated by Dr Peter Webster, the author of Church and Patronage in 20th Century Britain: Walter Hussey and the Arts. This exhibition was subsequently displayed in the Cathedral during October and featured in a BBC South Today programme on 21 November.

On 23 November at a Chichester Psalms Gala Evening in the Assembly Rooms Peter McEnery performed his one-man play Walter & Lenny based on the Bernstein and Hussey letters. After the interval Nigel Simeone was joined by Alexander Bernstein, who had come to Chichester in July 1965 with his father, mother, and sister Jamie, for the first performance of the Chichester Psalms.

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Alexander Bernstein (front row, second from left) with the choristers from the original performance in 1965. Photo credit: Bill Wyatt, 2018.

On the afternoon of 24 November, ahead of the evening performance we were delighted to host a visit to the Record Office by Alexander Bernstein, some of the former choristers, who had taken part on the original performance in 1965, Nigel Simeone and his wife, Peter McEnery and Julia St John, and other supporters of the Festival, to see the original archives that tell the story of the Chichester Psalms, ahead of the spectacular concert the evening. It was very special to be able to show Alexander his father’s letters and then go on to listen to his father’s wonderful music in its original setting. It was a fitting way to end the celebrations of Bernstein in Chichester and a day that I will remember long after the archives of the Festival itself have in turn found their place at the Record Office.


Wendy Walker, County Archivist

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