Igor Stravinsky

Symphony of Psalms, for chorus & orchestra

    Description by Blair Johnston

    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.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Exaudi orationem meam, Domine
    2. Expectans expectavi Dominum
    3. Alleluja, laudate Dominum

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2015 DG Deutsche Grammophon B002346910
    2015 Sony Classical 88875026162
    2015 RCO RCO 15002
    2015 DG Deutsche Grammophon 002894794261
    2015 FHR / First Hand Records FHR 37
    2015 Equilibrium EQ 126
    2015 DG Deutsche Grammophon B002398272
    2013 Praga PRD 350096
    2013 DG Deutsche Grammophon 4791044
    2011 Decca
    2011 Decca 4783028
    2011 Decca
    2010 Sony Classical 8869768365
    2010 DG Deutsche Grammophon 001660502
    2010 Cascavelle 3119
    2010 Orfeo 804101
    2010 PentaTone Classics 5186349
    2010 Decca
    2008 RCO Live 08005
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099921757
    2008 Warner Classics
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099920763
    2007 Sony Classical Essential Classics 103112
    2007 Rondeau 2015
    2007 London/Decca / Decca / Universal Distribution 4758525
    2007 London/Decca / Decca B0009721
    2007 Warner Classics 4698903
    2007 Elatus
    2006 Sony Classical / Sony Classical Essential Classics 88697008192
    2006 Haenssler 93183
    2006 Naxos 8557504
    2005 EMI Music Distribution 57851
    2004 Document 221905
    2004 Telarc Distribution 80643
    2004 Musical Heritage Society 5375964
    2003 Andante 1100
    2003 Supraphon 36742
    2003 Coro 16013
    2002 DG Deutsche Grammophon 463789
    2002 BBC Legends 4096
    2002 Decca
    2002 Decca 467818
    2002 Koch 7514
    2001 DG Deutsche Grammophon
    2001 DG Deutsche Grammophon 469205
    2000 Dutton Laboratories 9700
    2000 Chandos 9240
    2000 DG Deutsche Grammophon 457616
    1999 Sony Music Distribution 64136
    1999 Decca 458898
    1998 RCA 68470
    1995 Sony Music Distribution 46294
    1995 Praga 250063
    1995 Collins Records 1446
    1994 Supraphon 1947
    1994 Philips 442 583-2PM2
    1994 Chandos 9239
    1994 Sony Classical 53275
    1994 BIS 400
    1993 Orfeo 15821
    1993 Sony Music Distribution 47628
    1993 Hyperion 66437
    1991 Sony Music Distribution 46290
    1991 Telarc Distribution 80254
    1990 CBS Records / Sony Music Distribution 44710
    1988 DG Deutsche Grammophon 4232522
    1988 Decca / DG Deutsche Grammophon
    1988 CBS Masterworks / CBS Records 42434
    Klavier Records 11017
    Disques Montaigne 8811
    MusicMasters 67078
    Document 221910
    6w 66
    Decca 4140782
    Calig 50918
    Supraphon 111947
    EMI Classics 56099
    IMG Artists 100
    Chandos 6654