Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) wrote his great work ‘The Symphony of Psalms’ for Serge Koussevitzky. He had requested it commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This piece is very religious, and although it is essentially a sacred vocal piece of music, Stravinsky wrote it for the concert hall. He chose three psalms in their latin forms and chose them as the words for the choir. Unusually, Stravinsky wrote the third movement first, which he finished in early April 1930. The second movement was finished on the 17th of July. He finished the piece on the 15th August 1930.
The piece was set for a chorus
of mixed voice
s (SATB), although preferably all male, and a full orchestra
, although the orchestra contained 2 piano
s, and no violin
s or clarinet
The piece is not in four movements, like most symphonies of this time, but in three, the last being the great ‘alleluia’ movement. His wanted the work to feature extensive contrapuntal development, and in order to increase the means at his disposal he decided to select a choral and instrumental ensemble in which the two elements should be on an identical footing, neither of them outweighing the other.
The first movement
This movement acts as a prelude to the second movement, which is fugal. The words at the start this movement are: ’Exaudi orationem meam, Domine, et deprecationem meam’- ‘Hear my prayer, O Lord, and with Thine ears consider my calling’. The woodwind acts as accompaniment throughout, often using ostinatos.
The second movement
This movement is a double fugue for voices and instruments. The subject of this fugue is the ‘Expectans expectavi Dominum’ (‘I waited patiently for the Lord’) motif, in a stretto. This then turns into a monophonic section where the music leads towards the third and final movement.
The final movement
This movement is bitonal, where the singers are in E flat major for much of the piece, accompanied by the orchestra in C major. The movement uses a vast range in dynamics, and the ‘alleluia’ sections are to be noted, they are very quiet whilst the ‘laudate dominum’ sections are much larger and more powerful. This movement is in three sections, the first is monophonic, whilst the second has an incredibly complicated texture. It uses contrapuntal effects as well as frequent chromatics and very obvious syncopated rhythms. The coda uses the ‘alleluia’ and ‘laudate dominum’ found at the end of the first section.
`It is not a symphony in which I have included Psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing.'
- Igor Stravinsky