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Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Symphony of Psalms (Movement III)


Symphony of Psalms was written in 1930 for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The third movement was written first and inscribed, according to the ecclesiastical calendar, 'one week after Ascension'. It is acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of Stravinsky's neo-classical period.

Born in Russia, Stravinsky emigrated three times in his life: firstly to Switzerland in 1914, secondly to Paris in 1920, and finally, in 1939, to the USA. In Paris he worked with a theatre company to produce some of the greatest ballets ever written, such as The Rite of Spring (1911-13), Petrushka (1910-11), and Firebird (1909-10). Although taught by Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky was decidedly influenced by Debussy during his years in Paris, but during this time his music should be regarded as setting the fashion, rather than reacting to it.

Stravinsky's Religious Sentiments

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Stravinsky came under the influence of a Russian orthodox priest called Nicolai Pobedonostsev. Stravinsky wrote that he was 'practically a member of the household' during the five years from 1925-1930, and Richard Taruskin has discovered that the Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920) is liturgically related to a Russian orthodox rite for the dead. In 1932, he composed a Credo for unaccompanied choir and in 1934, an Ave Maria. Whilst the Symphony of Psalms is not a liturgical work, being intended for concert performance, its religious subject matter does reflect his personal beliefs.

Neo-classical traits in Symphony of Psalms

Stravinsky claimed that his Octet (1922-3) was a 'musical object', which should not be interpreted by musicians. They should just play it, following his instructions as closely as possible. Like the Octet, Symphony of Psalms does not achieve its effect by acting as a vehicle for the conveyance of emotions from the performer to the listener, but through the play of 'musical elements'. Some of these are shown in the analysis below: the acerbic counterpoint, movement between C major and E-flat major, rhythmic interest, and lucid presentation of material, for example. One could speculate that a computer could play Symphony of Psalms and it would still sound interesting!

Stravinsky's word setting

Stravinsky creates music with ideas rather than with words. In his music, the individual phrases are often set with the syllables in the wrong place: rather than having strong syllables within the poetic line on strong beats, they can fall anywhere. He was more interested in the sound of the words and on the general ideas they refer to. This did not endear him to the librettists, whose rhyming couplets he butchered in this manner, such as André Gide, who collaborated with Stravinsky on Perséphone in 1934.

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