Before the later stages of his career, when he began positively pouring out sacred music, settings of religious texts in Igor Stravinsky's catalog of works are relatively few and far between. There are, of course, the Pater Noster of 1926 and the Credo of 1932, but the only really sizable work in an explicitly religious vein that appeared before the Mass of 1947 is the famous Symphony of Psalms for chorus and orchestra that Stravinsky composed in 1930, to fulfill a commission offered to the composer by Serge Koussevitzky during the final days of 1929. The score of the Symphony is thus very appropriately prefaced by a dual dedication that reads, "this Symphony was composed for the glory of God and dedicated to the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of its 50th anniversary."
Like the Symphonies of Wind Instruments composed ten years earlier, the Symphony of Psalms forces us to step back and reevaluate our musical terminology. Here, symphony is used in more or less its original sense, meaning that which "sounds" or "sounds together," and without any reference to either the traditional multi-movement formal design that dominates orchestral music from Haydn's day onward, or to the overtly personal dramatic narrative that the symphony came to represent to much of the nineteenth century musical population. The somewhat contradictory title of the work reflects Stravinsky's self-proclaimed intent to achieve a kind of perfect balance between voices and instruments, neither one asserting any kind of superiority over the other. In a certain manner of speaking, we can relate this duality of expression to the same duality of sentiment indicated in the work's dedication -- here is a potent realization of the idea, certainly dear to the composer's heart after the reaffirmation of his Orthodox faith in the 1920s, that man and the divine occupy two distinct areas of one and the same sphere as far as art is concerned. The three Latin psalms used in the symphony (Psalms 38, 49, and 150) are treated in a largely homophonic manner that both sharply contrasts with and, in an ineffable sense that lends a great deal to the sublime spiritual tone of the symphony, solemnly reinforces the more heavily contrapuntal texture of the instruments. On a technical level, Stravinsky sets that spiritual tone by omitting altogether some of the elements of the orchestra that we most closely associate with individual warmth and expression -- the rich upper strings, the clarinets -- and by recommending that the soprano and alto parts of the chorus be performed by a boys' choir.
The three movements are played without any pause. The first movement rides along on steady 16th note and eighth note figurations, on top of which the largely semitone-inflected voices offer their sober, slower-moving thoughts. The second movement is cast as a double fugue, the first for just the orchestra, the second joining all the forces together for Psalm 39. More kinetic in nature is the final movement, which contains the entirety of Psalm 150. Around the central, vibrantly energetic activity are two pillars -- one introductory, one conclusive -- of more serene, worshipful music. The second of these pillars is fashioned into an extensive coda that ends with an unusually spaced C major chord that, however difficult it might be to tune and balance (the first oboe, for instance, is given the E an octave plus a tenth above middle C), seems somehow to contain within it a reflection of the Symphony's ideal of superhuman clarity.