Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms

Symphony of Psalms

Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky was born on June 18, 1882, in Oranienbaum, now Lomonosov in the Northwest Saint Petersburg Region of the Russian Republic, and died in New York on April 6, 1971. The Symphony of Psalms was composed in 1930; Stravinsky completed the score in Nice on August 15 that year. The work was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s fiftieth anniversary, and the title page reads (in French): “This symphony, composed/to the glory of GOD/is dedicated to the/ ‘Boston Symphony Orchestra’/ on the occasion/of the fiftieth anniversary of its existence.” The premiere of the Symphony of Psalms was planned for Boston Symphony concerts in December 1930, but Koussevitzky fell ill and the work was not performed; it received its world premiere on December 13, 1930 with Ernest Ansermet conducting the chorus and orchestra of the Brussels Philharmonic Society. Koussevitzky introduced the work in America the following week. The chorus was the Cecilia Society, prepared by its conductor, Arthur Fiedler. The first San Francisco Symphony performance of the Symphony of Psalms was conducted by the composer on March 23, 1937, in the Civic Auditorium, and featured the San Francisco Municipal Chorus. Stravinsky revised the work in 1948. The most recent performances were given in May 2007, with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, and Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. The Symphony of Psalms is scored for mixed chorus with an orchestra of five flutes (one doubling piccolo), four oboes and English horn, three bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, five trumpets (one of them a high trumpet in D), three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, harp, two pianos, cellos, and basses. Performance time: about twenty-one minutes.

To point out that in the Symphony of Psalms Stravinsky uses the word “symphony” in a special way is to be redundant. With Stravinsky everything is a special case. No one composer has given us a more varied series of suggestions about what “symphony” can mean than Stravinsky, with his sequence of the Symphony in E-flat major (1907), Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1921), Symphony of Psalms (1930), Symphony in C (1940), and Symphony in Three Movements (1945). Of these, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments and the Symphony of Psalms are linked not only by their solemnity and a certain austere sound, but also by the composer’s return to the original sense of “symphony” as a mingling of sounds and by his departure from the Classic-Romantic associations that surround the word.

Koussevitzky made no stipulations about instrumentation or form in the commission that resulted in the Symphony of Psalms, and since Stravinsky had had the project of composing psalm settings in mind for some time, this is what he went ahead with. He first thought of setting the psalms in Old Church Slavonic, and the decision to use Latin came only when he was some way into the work. (The numbering of the psalms we use here are, as in the score, those of the Vulgate, and the translations are from the Douay version. The corresponding numbers in the King James version are verses 12 and 13 of Psalm 39; verses 1, 2, and 3 of Psalm 40; and Psalm 150.) He began with Psalm 150, and the first idea he wrote down was the rhythmic figure that, as “Laudate Dominum,” isa vital presence throughout the quick part of the last movement. “The fast-tempo sections of the Psalm were composed first,” Stravinsky writes, “and the first and second movements of the symphony followed. The “Alleluia”and the slow music at the beginning of the 150th Psalm, which is an answer to the question in the [39th] Psalm, came last.”

That a composition should have unique thematic material is a familiar enough idea, at least for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; that it should, or even can, have a unique sonority is more specifically a Stravinskian thought. What Stravinsky calls for in the Symphony of Psalms isan altogether special distribution with unusual concentration on certain sounds (flutes, trumpets, and pianos) and complete omission of others (clarinets and high strings).

For that matter, the scoring and spacing even of a common chord becomes an adventure. An E minor chord is a familiar enough object, but Stravinsky writes measure one of the psalms as though it were the first triad in the history of the world. (One of the first things a student learns in an elementary harmony class is that when writing a triad you emphasize in the first place its root and then its fifth—here those would be E and B, respectively. Stravinsky’s chord, as distributed through his orchestra, is underprivileged in Bs, even more in Es, and the note of which there is by far the most is G—the third, that is, the one that according to common practice and academic theory is not to be doubled). Part of this amazing sound stems from the spacing—the concentration of flutes, oboes, harps, and pianos at the top, the parallel concentration of bassoons, contrabassoon, trombones, timpani, basses, harp, and pianos at the bottom, with all that great gap in between.

Equally characteristic is what happens after this chord—the scurrying sixteenth notes in oboe and bassoon. Stravinsky’s practice is opposed to the classic-Romantic way of “modulating” organically from one event to the next. Instead, he proceeds by shock. He makes a deliberately violent leap from the chord to the sixteenth-note figuration and back to the chord. Another vital feature is the dynamic marking of that first chord, mezzo-forte. The force of the gesture is unmistakable, and every other composer would have expressed it with a smashing hammer blow of sound. Stravinsky turns its energy inwards, and the compressed, even repressed, nature of his expressive impulses provides an essential clue to the sources of the beauty and power of his music. The Symphony’sintensely moving final pages, “Laudate eum in cymbalis benesonantibus ...,” are another manifestation of that same spiritual reserve.

Stravinsky is much concerned with unity. The psalms he chose are unified textually. The 39th Psalm is like an answer to the 38th. The “Alleluia”with which the 150th begins is the “new canticle” of the 39th. In another sense the Symphony is unified in that its three movements are linked and to be sung and played without pause. The first psalm ascends rapidly to its conclusion. With the first notes of the next psalm it becomes clear that the whole first movement has been one great upbeat to the second. Here is Stravinsky’s account of that second movement: “The ‘Waiting for the Lord’ Psalm makes the most overt use of musical symbolism in any of my music before The Flood. An upside-down pyramid of fugues, it begins with a purely instrumental fugue of limited compass and employs only solo instruments.... The next and higher stage of the upside-down pyramid is the human fugue, which does not begin without instrumental help for the reason that I modified the structure as I composed and decided to overlap instruments and voices to give the material more development, but the human choir is heard a cappella after that. The human fugue also represents a higher level in the architectural symbolism by the fact that it expands into the bass register. The third stage, the upside-down foundation, unites the two fugues [Et immisit in os meum canticum novum].”

Stravinsky regards Psalm 150 “as a song to be danced, as David danced before the ark.” He also startled many of his listeners and readers when Dialogues and a Diary came out in 1963 with the statement that “the allegro in the 150th Psalm was inspired by a vision of Elijah’s chariot climbing the heavens [11 Kings 2, 11]; I do not think I had ever written anything so literal as the triplets for horns and piano to suggest the horses and the chariot. The final hymn of praise must be thought of as issuing from the skies; agitation is followed by the calm of praise.”

There is one more great crescendo as God is praised with timbrel and choir (Stravinsky does not take the Psalmist’s hints on orchestration), but for the praise on high-sounding cymbals and cymbals of joy, the music settles into timeless, motionless quiet. Great censers swing and quiet voices fill the air with their adoration. Or, in music, pianos, harps, and timpani move through three notes over and over, while in the same register as the voices, cellos and trumpets, later on oboes, finally all the winds, spread harmony at once rich and luminous. The “Alleluia,” the new canticle, returns for a moment to resolve, with the last “Dominum,”everything into a C major chord, severe and beatific, as beautiful and as special as only Stravinsky could make it.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical)  |  Pierre Boulez conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Igor Stravinsky conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (CBS Masterworks)

Reading: Stravinsky: The Composer and his Works, by Eric Walter White (University of California Press, Second Edition)  |  The Music of Stravinsky, by Stephen Walsh (Oxford University Press)

(May 2014)