Andre J. Thomas
Andre Jerome Thomas is an American composer and conductor. He currently is a professor of music at Florida State University and is artistic director of the Tallahassee Community Chorus. In addition to his conducting and composing credits, he is author of Way Over in Beulah Lan': Understanding and Performing the Negro Spiritual and numerous journal articles.
Thomas grew up in Wichita, KS with two sisters and his mother. Thomas credits his mother's dedication to her family's economic and spiritual well-being, cleaning buses for Continental Trailways and singing in church, for his own fascination with music. Thomas explored not only choral music but instrumental music as well. During his elementary school years he took piano lessons from various members of his church, though only sporadically. Though Thomas received some outside musical training, for most of his early childhood he was predominantly self-taught.
Upon entering junion high school Thomas decided to pursue piano formally. He took lessons at Wichita State University and by his eighth grade year he had won the Federated Music Clubs Piano Competition. Thomas participated in the school's chorus and developed a dislike for spirituals and gospel music which he has since become known for composing.
He explains the felling: I must admit, I was not fond of these settings even through high school. As a young black amn, I really didn't identify. This was not the black music that I knew and it certainly wasn't the music that I experienced at my church! The text utilized dialect and it made me feel as if performing this music gave white people a chance to make fun of black people. I never really heard the message in the text; I only heard the way it sounded. We certainly weren't allowed to speak like that in my home and it denoted ignorance in my mind....
In addition to his college teaching career Thomas conducts various choral organizations throughout the U.S. as well as in Australia, England, China, Estonia, Israel, New Zealand and many other countries. He has conducted at least 40 All-State high school choirs and has twice conducted the World Youth Choir.
Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England has an outstanding musical tradition that dates back to the early 17th century when composer Thomas Weelkes was its organist. In recent times Chichester has joined forces with the choirs of neighboring Winchester and Salisbury Cathedrals each summer to produce the now-famous Three Choir Festival.
For the 1965 Festival the Dean of Chichester, the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, commissioned Leonard Bernstein to write Chichester Psalms. Hussey wrote to Benstein, "I hope you will feel quite free to write as you wish and will in no way feel inhibited by circumstances. I think many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music.
Bernstein's memoirs include the following reference to the composition: "In 1964 and 65 I was given a sabbatical from the (New York) Philarmonic and decided to use that year to compose. In the course of the year I made many experiments because I had the luxury of a whole year to do nothing but experiment. And part of my experimentation was to try... to write some pieces which ... were less old fashione.... And what I came out with at the end of the year was a piece called Chichester Psalms.
Dean Hussey ended up getting considerably more than the "hint" of what he had requested. The tenor and bass violent intrusion midway through the second movement is a reworking of material cut from the overture of West Side Story. Other material in Chichester Psalm was adapted from music Bernstein had composed for a musical version of The Skin of Our Teeth. The treble solo in the second movement , a setting of the 23rd Psalm, had originated as a song entitled "Spring Will Come Again".
The opening Maestoso chorale is a setting of Psalm 108, v. 2. It is a majestic introit using striking dissonances of sevenths. This music returns 3 times: at the end of Movement 1 and at the beginning and end of Movement 3. The introit leads directly into a joyously upbeat setting of Psalm 100 in a fast 7/4 meter, which rises in volume until it is to be sung "boisterously".
The middle movement begins with a peaceful solo setting of Psalm 23, originally sung by a boy treble to the accompaniment of simple chords on the harp, calling to mind the shepherd boy, David. This melody is then repeated in canon by the high voices of the chorus but is unexpectedly interrupted by a pugnacious intrusion (Allegro feroce) by the low voices singing verses from Psalm 2. The combative treatment of these lines involves canonic sections and up-tempo rhythmic effects that play upon the staccato sounds of the Hebrew language. As the violence moves on into the distance the high voices resume their singing of Psalm 23, The score indicates that they were "Blissfully unaware of threat". Even as the movement draws to a close the accompaniment echoes the rhythms of war like distant thunder.
The third movement begins with an extended instrumental introduction. The voices sing all of Psalm 131 "peacefully flowing" with a sustained melody in 10/4 time (divided into twice two-plus-three).
The work ends with an unaccfompanied version of the opening chorale, here to the words of Psalm 133, vs. 1. The single unison "Amen" is accompanied by notes of the first phrase of the opening chorale.
Bernstein's original orchestration (indicated by space and budget at Chichester Cathedral) included strings, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 harps and an extensive percussion section. The reduced orchestration heard in tonight's performance was written by Bernstain in response to the succes of the work and demand for it in church settings where the larger orchestration would be impractical.