Coming to Terms with Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms”

A short time ago, I had written some preliminary thoughts about performing Carmina Burana—a sort of guide for our upcoming concert with the Minnesota Orchestra. But I’d like to point out there is another fantastic work on the program, Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. This is a masterwork of the highest order, but it has nowhere near the popularity of Carmina Burana… and in fact I’ve never sung it before. So I wanted to take a moment to share my thoughts about learning this odd, challenging, but mighty choral work.

In fact, the work figures into one of my all-time favorite concerts, although not in a way you’d suspect.

* * *

In the fall of 1993, my stepfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer—a particularly malignant brain tumor. He began chemo and radiation at once. The treatments were quite aggressive, and as the autumn progressed they took quite a toll, affecting his motor coordination, stamina, memory, speech… everything. About a week before Christmas, however, the first round of treatments stopped, and we were astonished at how quickly his heath improved. He reached the point where he was going somewhat house-crazy, and I was charged with finding a suitable outing we could all do together before I went back to grad school after the holiday break.

I suggested a concert at Orchestra Hall as a great solution… it was something where he could sit and not get too fatigued, but still felt like a nice night out on the town.

Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem was on the program that night, and I jumped at a chance to hear it. I knew and loved his Four Motets Based on Gregorian Chants, which I had performed back in college. In fact, I loved one of the motets, “Ubi Caritas,” so much that I had my friends and colleagues from the Minnesota Chorale sing it at my wedding. The Requiem, however, was somewhat of a mystery to me. I had only heard it in passing, in arrangements with reduced intrumentation that didn’t do much for me. But, I loved Duruflé’s aesthetic generally, and since legendary choral conductor Robert Shaw was on the podium, I rounded up the family and headed over to Orchestra Hall.

That concert staggered me.

Hearing that work, brought to life by a full orchestra was an indescribable feeling. I remember watching our beloved concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis leading the strings in that gorgeous, murmuring open line… and it was like being surrounded with liquid light. The singing by the Dale Warland Singers was altogether magical, almost inhuman in its execution, yet so powerfully humane. Obviously with my stepfather’s cancer, I had been living with thoughts of mortality for some time; yet oddly enough at a concert featuring a mass for the dearly departed, these thoughts were gently melted away. For me, that concert was, quite simply, a religious experience. And I still say today that Duruflé’s setting of the Requiem is more powerful, more profound, and more musical than most other settings written by much more illustrious composers. I ran out the next day to get Shaw’s recording of the work, and it remains to this day one of my most cherished recordings.

Oh, and also on that program, they performed Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.

And… perhaps you see the problem. After having a Definitive Concert-Going Experience with Duruflé, there was no way any other piece could possibly compete.  In fact, until I saw our schedule, I don’t know that I’d given Stravinsky’s work a second thought over the last 20 years.

I firmly believe that Stravinsky is the better overall composer, and his work is almost certainly the more important choral work. But Symphony of Psalms was unfortunately relegated, so to speak, to being the “B” side of my favorite album. (Yes, I realize I just dated myself.)

The one good thing about this turn of events is that it gave me a chance to come to terms with one of the 20th century’s most important choral works with no preconceptions. I was able to experience it with fresh ears, so to speak. And while Symphony of Psalms will never usurp Duruflé’s Requiem in my affections, I am thrilled to have this chance to learn Stravinsky’s masterwork.

* * *

Stravinsky is, of course, a singular artist with a singular approach to music. He famously disparaged the notion of portraying things literally in music:

I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc….Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.
–Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography, 1935, Calder and Boyars ed., 1975, p.53.

He went one step further, and denied that music could ever truly express emotion:

Most people like music because it gives them certain emotions such as joy, grief, sadness, and image of nature, a subject for daydreams or – still better – oblivion from “everyday life”. They want a drug – dope -…. Music would not be worth much if it were reduced to such an end. When people have learned to love music for itself, when they listen with other ears, their enjoyment will be of a far higher and more potent order, and they will be able to judge it on a higher plane and realise its intrinsic value.
–Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography, 1935, Calder and Boyars ed., 1975, p.53.

It seems odd, then, that Stravinsky would compose an overtly religious piece of music— religious music is inherently and thoroughly wrapped up in a whole range of complex human emotions, such as fear, joy, hope, doubt, and love.

But Symphony of Psalms most certainly is a religious work, and a profound one at that.  That said, it presents the listener with a highly unusual religious point of view. The striking thing about it is that it presents religious belief in an objective way. It is impersonal, and non-expressive. It is a ritual.

But paradoxically, because it is impersonal, it becomes universal… and as such it becomes extraordinarily expressive.

Consider the first of the three movements (which are performed without a break between them). The text reads:

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and with Thine ears consider my calling:
Hold not Thy peace at my tears.
For I am a stranger with Thee: and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
O spare me a little that I may recover my strength:
Before I go hence and be no more.

In the hands of a 19th century romantic, this could become a cry of anguish—as in the opening chorus of Mendelssohn’s Elijah. But Stravinsky creates a completely different character by making it impersonal and ritualistic.

Let me explain. Oddly enough, Stravinsky’s use of ritualism brings to mind a recent scene in the hit HBO series, Game of Thrones. Without giving away too many spoilers, there was a furious assault on Castle Black, at the outermost fringes of the realm. As the main attack is taking place, the defenders realize that one specific feint, directed at a vulnerable point of the gate, could lead to the loss of the entire fortress. In desperation, a group of six knights are sent to deal with the overwhelming threat. They know they have no hope of surviving, but realize their sacrifice may save the castle as a whole. At that moment, one of the knights starts reciting the oath he took to defend the realm at all costs. He starts out timidly and alone, but gradually the others join in and the oath becomes a defiant battle cry, a repeated mantra that gives them the strength to face their fear. In any other context, the words of the oath seem silly, antiquated, and artificial; but at this moment, chanted in non-expressive monotone, the words give focus, courage, and power.

In the real world, I can imagine D-Day soldiers reciting Psalm 23 to the same effect as their transports approached the beaches of Normandy.

For me, this is the feeling of Symphony of Psalm’s first movement. It is a formalized call, giving strength and clarity to the supplicants, purging other distracting thoughts and steeling the congregants to appear before God receive His answer. The music isn’t imitating emotion—it doesn’t have to. The entire universe of emotions is already contained in that statement.

And, the ritualistic aspect moves the idea away from any one person’s grief or fear. The words are for all of us… for all of humanity crying out to God. This gives the music a powerful feeling of universality that transcends our individual concerns.

This same feeling of impersonal, yet universal ritual continues in the second movement. The beginning of this movement is a double fugue, one of the most rigidly structural forms of music. Each voice part sings a single line of music in sequence, giving the feel of a chanted mantra.

But then Stravinsky gives us two remarkable moments.

At the point that the text reads, “He hath set my feet upon the rock,” Stravinsky completely surprises us. Most composers, reading this line, would compose a strong, sturdy foundation—a definitive Statement indicating we are now on firm ground.

Stravinsky will have none of that.

Instead, he brings the voices together, but has us sing a capella—the solid foundation of the orchestra vanishes completely. It is as if we singers have taken a leap of faith, stepping boldly into the thin air and trusting that God will lift us and keep us steady. It is all the more challenging given the complexities of Stravinsky’s harmonies—we really are taking a leap of faith when we sing that section. It is a riveting moment.

The second remarkable moment comes only a few seconds later. To the text, “He hath placed a new song in my heart,” Stravinsky gathers up all the momentum and creates a swirl of unconventional harmonies. It is a powerful statement that something new, something remarkable, something beyond human understanding is taking shape in God’s mind. It gathers undeniable force…

And then the third movement presents this new song. After the mighty generative power of the song’s creation, the choir gives voice to a simple, delicate, and gentle song of “Alleluia.”

At that point, the third movement begins alternating the gentle, otherworldly Alleluias with rapid-fire, energetic exclamations calling us to praise God with cymbals, trumpets, and other great cries of joy. These joyful shouts are remarkable, bristling with rhythmic drive. It is as if the chanted mantras of the earlier movements have lead to an ecstatic trance that is almost savage in its intensity. To me, this section vividly brings to mind performing Leonard Bernstein’s Mass… particularly in the hard-edged “Gloria” and the frenzied “Dona Nobis Pacem.”

But instead of dissolving into cacophony, Stravinsky’s finale brings us back to a serene chant of praise, untouched by human suffering or doubt. We once again sing out the hushed words, “Alleluia,” and fade into the unknown.

* * *

Symphony of Psalms is a very unusual piece, one that can seem puzzling at first hearing. Even challenging. Listeners conditioned for more overt sentiments, like those found in the Requiems of Verdi or Duruflé, might initially be taken aback. The Symphony is not necessarily overt in its feelings… but in its own way it is immensely moving. As I’ve mentioned, the music’s ritualism gives it a universal character beyond the concerns of any one person. And ultimately, the work ends with an astonishing vision—the repeating cycles provide a glimpse of a kind of musical Eternity in which celestial choirs endlessly sing in praise of God. It is the kind of work that redefines what religious music can, and should, be like.

At the end of the day, Symphony of Psalms has more than repaid all the effort that went I’ve put into learning it. I hope you will come to Orchestra Hall to hear the final results—please visit the box office if you haven’t already.






One thought on “Coming to Terms with Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms”

  1. Pingback: The Top 10 Choral Works of the 20th Century | Mask of the Flower Prince

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