Stravinsky: Canticum sacrum ad honorem Sancti Marci nominis

IGOR FEDOROVICH STRAVINSKY

BORN: June 18, 1882. Oranienbaum (Lomonosov), Russia

DIED: April 6, 1971. New York City, NY

COMPOSED: 1955, on commission from the Venice Biennale. The dedication, in Latin, is “to the City of Venice, in praise of its Patron Saint, the Blessed Mark, Apostle.”

WORLD PREMIERE: September 13, 1956. Stravinsky conducted in Saint Mark’s Cathedral, Venice

US PREMIERE: June 19, 1957. At a recording session, also conducted by Stravinsky, in Hollywood, CA

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—May 1999. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted, with tenor Richard Clement, baritone Fran├žois LeRoux, and the SFS Chorus

INSTRUMENTATION: solo tenor and baritone, mixed chorus, and an orchestra of flute, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 3 trumpets and bass trumpet, 4 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass, 1 contrabass), harp, organ, violas, and basses

DURATION: About 18 mins

THE BACKSTORY Stravinsky is now a permanent Venetian, having taken up residence, so to speak, in the Orthodox enclosure of the cemetery on the island of San Michele on April 15, 1971, nine days after his death in New York. The choice was of course his, and the most urgent single reason was his desire to be buried near Serge Diaghilev, for whom Stravinsky composed many of his most important works, and a man who might almost take credit for having invented Igor Stravinsky. For Diaghilev, who died there in 1929, Venice was a magic place. Stravinsky also had an abiding love for Venice ever since his first time there, in 1925. Paul Griffiths suggests in his book on Stravinsky that Venice may have become a kind of substitute for the composer’s beloved Saint Petersburg, another city of canals. At any rate, Stravinsky traveled to Venice many times, beginning in 1925 and continuing through visits for the first performances of his three commissions from the Biennale, Canticum sacrum ad honorem Sancti Marci nominis (Canticle to Honor the Name of Saint Mark) in 1956; in 1958, the grand late sacred work Threni; and, in 1960, Monumentum pro Gesualdo.

By the late 1940s, one reliably certain fact about the music world was that Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, both displaced into suburbs of Los Angeles, represented totally irreconcilable outlooks with respect to musical composition. Yet just a few years later, Stravinsky was exploring compositional techniques that belonged to the world of The Other. What had happened?

One thing is that the young conductor Robert Craft had come into Stravinsky’s life, bringing, along with devotion to Stravinsky, his own extraordinary resources of inquisitiveness and erudition. These included a thorough knowledge of the music of Schoenberg and his two principal students, Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Another thing is that Schoenberg, Stravinsky’s senior by eight years, died in the summer of 1951, an event that in a strange way seemed to give Stravinsky permission to explore in what ways Schoenberg’s discoveries might be useful or interesting for him. As Stravinsky began his explorations in such works as the Septet (1953), Three Shakespeare Songs (1954), and In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954), he found highly Stravinskian ways of applying whatever tickled him about Schoenberg’s methods. He used those ways to do what he had always done: to write music that, whatever its stylistic surface, proclaims loudly and unmistakably “IGOR Stravinsky WAS HERE.” The voice we hear in Canticum sacrum is Stravinsky’s and only Stravinsky’s.

The texts in Canticum sacrum are drawn from the Bible, presumably by Stravinsky himself. Several observers have suggested that Stravinsky chose a five-movement design to create an aural analogy to the five domes of Saint Mark’s Cathedral, where the work would have its first performance.  

THE MUSIC Stravinsky precedes the five “real” movements of Canticum sacrum with a brief Dedicatio for the tenor and baritone soloists and three trombones, measures in which he actually sets to music the formal dedication to the City and its Patron Saint. Here, in these nine introductory bars, florid in line, austere in sonority, Stravinsky harks back to the Renaissance and Baroque traditions.

The subject of the first full movement of Canticum sacrum, Euntes in mundum, is Jesus’s exhortation to the Apostles to go out into the world and preach. This is grandly sonorous music for the full forces. Right away, the staccato repeated notes of trumpets with trombone and bassoons provide the Stravinsky signature. In this movement we meet a sound to be found nowhere else in Stravinsky’s music, that of the organ, which is used for punctuation as part of the orchestral tutti, but which, its bass line lightly doubled by bassoons, has two solemn solo interludes.

After the hieratic grandeur of Euntes in mundum comes a more intimate music, its text drawn from the Song of Songs. Surge, aquilo is a tenor solo in Stravinsky’s most ecstatically florid vocal style, and with an amazing kaleidoscopic accompaniment for flute, English horn, harp, and three basses. This movement is Stravinsky’s leap into full-blown, twelve-note serialism. What matters to us as listeners is the ardent lyricism of the tenor’s love song. Probably the most celebrated piece written for Saint Mark’s is the glorious collection by Claudio Monteverdi known as the Vespers of 1610. Aside from general ideas of contrast and range of types of music, it also gave Stravinsky a model for the virtuoso vocal writing of Surge, aquilo.  

The third movement is Canticum’s biggest. (Of the five domes of Saint Mark’s, the central one is the biggest.) The comprehensive title of this movement is Ad tres virtutes hortationes (Exhortation to the Three Virtues), and its three sections, each the length of one of the other, independent movements, are headed Caritas (Love), Spes (Hope), and Fides (Faith). The opening organ music, which returns for the start of each section and also at the end, ties this cantata-within-the-cantata together.

The fourth movement, Brevis motus cantilenae, presents a brief scene from the Gospel According to Saint Mark, that of Jesus healing the deaf and dumb. The main voice is that of the baritone soloist, and he is backed up by the chorus.

The final movement, Illi autem profecti, picks up the theme—verbal and musical—of the first section. There the Apostles were exhorted to go into the world and preach; here we learn that they have done so. The music of this movement is the same as that of the first, only in reverse order, as a mirror image. —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.

LISTEN AGAIN: James O’Donnell conducting the City of London Sinfonia with Westminster Cathedral Choir, tenor John Mark Ainsley, and baritone Stephen Roberts (Hyperion)

(September 2019)