Program Notes: Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms”

[In spring 2020, the Minnesota Orchestra commissioned me to write program notes for Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, which would be performed with the Minnesota Chorale (and, yours truly). Unfortunately, the concert was canceled due to the coronavirus. But the Orchestra authorized me to post them anyway, and I am happy to do so below. Enjoy!]

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One reason Igor Stravinsky’s music is so exciting is that the composer absolutely refuses to follow convention. Symphony of Psalms is a perfect case in point. It was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 50th anniversary 1930.  The commissioners wanted something “symphonic,” and Stravinsky’s publisher pleaded for him to compose something “popular.” Stravinsky complied… but in ways they could likely never have foreseen.


Defying Expectations

Symphony of Psalms is an extraordinary work, which continues to fascinate because it so thoroughly plays against expectations. Despite the title, it is essentially a choral work, whose only nod to being a “symphony” is in its use of multiple movements.

One of its most unexpected features is Stravinsky’s overall approach to religion.  In 1924, the composer met with a Russian priest named Father Nicholas, who helped Stravinsky reconnect with his lapsed Orthodox Christian faith, and a develop a new understanding how humans could—and should—relate to God.

The Symphony clearly reflects this religious awakening, but the way Stravinsky expresses this renewed faith is quite unusual. For centuries, composers had treated religious texts in two principal ways. On the one hand, they treated the texts as a religious drama—a story where humans sought to understand, wrestle with, or defy God’s will. Also, composers tended towards musical literalism to vividly convey the meaning of the text, such as in using trumpets to signify Gabriel’s rallying call on the Day of Judgment.

Stravinsky thought these traditions were far too obvious. Instead, he produced a very different kind of work that, to his own mind, provided a more challenging, and ultimately rewarding experience for the listener. Rather than telling a clear narrative of one person’s dialogue with God, the Symphony is impersonal. Individual feeling is stripped away, and the music focuses on the collective believers. It is not a personal prayer, but rather a ritual.

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

The planned premiere was delayed when Koussevitzky became ill. Instead, the world premiere took place in Brussels on December 13, 1930, under the baton of Ernest Ansermet. It was an immediate success, and Symphony of Psalms continues to be hailed as one of the greatest choral works of the 20th century.


The Music

The Symphony’s three movements are performed without a break. The performing forces Stravinsky calls for are quite unusual, providing a unique sonic palette. Significantly, the upper strings are absent, with the chorus essentially taking their place. As the composer explained, the voices and instrumentalists “are on an equal footing, neither outweighing the other.”

Part I. Psalm 38: 13-14 The first movement begins with an E-major chord as a call to order, which leads to a fearful chant, “Hear my prayer, O Lord.” 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. It is a formalized call, giving strength and clarity to the supplicants, purging other distracting thoughts and steeling the congregants to appear before God to 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.

Part II. Psalm 39: 2-4 This same feeling of impersonal, yet universal ritual continues in the second movement. It starts with 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.

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. Instead, the singers sing a capella—the solid foundation of the orchestra vanishes completely. It is as if the congregants have taken a leap of faith, stepping boldly into the thin air.

Moments later, with the text, “He hath placed a new song in my heart,” Stravinsky increases the momentum and creates a swirl of unconventional harmonies. It is a powerful statement that something new, something remarkable is taking shape in God’s mind. It gathers undeniable force…

Part III. Psalm 150 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, hymn of “Alleluia.”

At that point, the music begins alternating the gentle, otherworldly Alleluias with rapid-fire, energetic exclamations calling us to praise God with cymbals and trumpets. These joyful shouts are remarkable, bristling with rhythmic drive. It is as if the chanted mantras of the earlier movements have led to an ecstatic trance that is almost savage in its intensity. Ultimately, the repeating cycles provide a glimpse of a kind of musical Eternity in which celestial choirs endlessly sing in praise of God.

But in the end, the intensity fades back to a serene chant of praise, untouched by human suffering or doubt. With the hushed words, “Alleluia,” the music fades into the unknown.

The ritual is concluded.




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