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Hyperion Records

CDA66437 - Stravinsky: Mass & Symphony of Psalms
The Nativity of Christ (detail). Mid fifteenth century

Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: June 1991
Total duration: 67 minutes 31 seconds

'If ever a style of performance were to bring people towards Stravinsky's church music, this is it' (Organists' Review)

'This is memorable music-making' (Gramophone)

Mass & Symphony of Psalms
Kyrie  [2'48] GreekEnglish
Gloria  [3'51] LatinEnglish
Credo  [4'52] LatinEnglish
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In his Chroniques de ma vie (1935/36), Stravinsky made a violent attack, inspired by a performance of Parsifal he had seen at Bayreuth in 1912, upon ‘this unseemly and sacrilegious conception of art as religion and the theatre as a temple’. His religious music is his own testament to the medieval clarity with which he perceived the difference between the two.

Stravinsky had, after an absence, returned to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1925 or 1926 (he himself was not clear about the year), and recorded that the poor quality of both music and singing in the Russian Church at Nice led him to write the Three Sacred Choruses, as the Lord’s Prayer, Credo, and Ave Maria are sometimes collectively known. They were actually completed at different times: in 1926, 1932, and 1934 respectively. They are simple and severe; wishing to try to establish connections with a tradition of Church music earlier than the utterly Italianate Bortnyansky, Stravinsky partly invented and partly remembered (from the services he had attended in his youth) a plain, syllabic style, essentially modal in harmony. The pieces are, for this very reason, extremely moving. The Latin versions of the texts were made later; and the composer also made a version of the Credo in 1964 with the fauxbourdon clearly written out. It is upon this that the present performance is based.

It was apparently during the writing of the Credo that Stravinsky first had the idea of setting the whole of the Mass. This did not in fact come to fruition until 1948, though in the meantime he completed the Symphony of Psalms and Babel. When he did begin the Mass, he claimed that it was provoked at least in part by the purchase of some second-hand scores of Mozart Masses; ‘rococo-operatic sweets of sin’, as he described them. He also recorded that it was because he wanted to write a genuinely liturgical piece but using instruments that he set the Catholic Mass; in the Orthodox Church the use of instruments is expressly forbidden. One must also remember, of course, Stravinsky’s predilection for the Latin language itself.

The instrumentation consists of wind instruments only—two oboes, cor anglais, two bassoons, two trumpets, and three trombones—and the extraordinary sonority this ensemble produces in combination with the choir of men’s and boys’ voices is one of the most noteworthy features of the Mass. The music itself is austere and humble, but possessed of the kind of inner radiance proper to true liturgical music. The strange oscillating solos of the Gloria and Sanctus, for example, sound like refractions of Byzantine chant; the incantatory declamation of the Credo is simply a Russian Creed transplanted (as, indeed, was his earlier setting of the text); and all the movements have memories of the Catholic polyphonic repertoire all the way from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. Stravinsky’s musical omnivorousness and the way in which he was able to filter this to create works of astonishing originality are well known. This applies to his sacred as well as to his secular music.

The origin of the Symphony of Psalms (1930, revised 1948) was a commission from Serge Koussevitsky for a symphony to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but the words of the dedication begin with the observation that it was composed ‘à la gloire de Dieu’: here is the real starting point of the work. The text for the Symphony is composed of verses 13 and 14 of Psalm 38 (Part 1); verses 2, 3, and 4 of Psalm 39 (Part 2); and the whole of Psalm 150 (Part 3). Robert Siobhan has written that ‘the Symphony of Psalms gives the impression of being inspired by a harsh, strong feeling that has grown out of the anguish of mankind, punctuated by occasional lightning flashes revealing the countenance of Jehovah’. This echoes Stravinsky’s own words about the work: ‘The Psalms are poems of exaltation, but also of anger and judgement, and even of curses.’ Thus it is that the serene calm of the last movement—one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in western music of this century in its suspension of time in static adoration and incantatory contemplation—has been won through the rigorous contrapuntal workings of the first two. Stravinsky referred to the symbolism of the ‘pyramid of fugues’ in the second movement, whose canticum novum is the Alleluia which opens and closes the final movement.

Stravinsky began composing the work in Slavonic, and only later changed to Latin. Though he specifically pointed out that he was not consciously aware of ‘Phrygian modes, Gregorian chants, Byzantinisms’ while composing, he said too that such influences may well have been unconsciously present. These words, together with his observation that the ‘Laudate Dominum’ section is ‘a prayer to the Russian image of the infant Christ with orb and sceptre’ serve to reinforce the strong Russo-Byzantine splendour of the music, otherwise almost inexplicable since the text is in Latin and the musical processes undeniably largely western and pseudo-Baroque in origin. The scoring is also as important here as it is in the Mass: there are no violins or violas, so that the upper registers are entirely coloured by the woodwind and brass.

It was during a trip to Rome in order to attend the European premiere of In memoriam Dylan Thomas that the suggestion was made that Stravinsky compose a work in honour of St Mark, the patron saint of Venice. As a result of this, experiments were made in a number of churches in that city in order to establish their acoustical properties. The resulting relationship between Canticum Sacrum ad honorem Sancti Marci Nominis, which was written during 1955, and the church of St Mark is close. The five parts of the work represent the five cupolas of the building (St Mark’s had originally been a Roman basilica, but has later layers of Byzantine and Gothic design, and it has therefore close connections with Orthodox Church architecture), and are ordered in the same way: the central one is the most important, and the others are arranged around it, the first related to the fifth, the second to the fourth. Much more detailed investigations have been made into the formal symbolism of the work; suffice it to say that at every level the unity of Stravinsky’s conception is apparent and the symbolism of word and number pervasive.

The subject of Canticum Sacrum is the honouring of St Mark’s life and work, and the text is drawn from a wide variety of Biblical books (the whole set in Latin) in order to illustrate the various aspects of the Saint’s evangelic mission. There is a dedication ‘Urbi Venetiae in laude Sancti sui Presidis Beati Marci Apostolis’, which is actually sung as an introduction by tenor and baritone, accompanied by two trombones—a scoring which inevitably brings to mind In memoriam Dylan Thomas of the previous year.

As a paraphrase of Stravinsky’s own words of reaction to Parsifal and as a motto to his religious music, the words from Rudolf Kassner which the composer quoted at the beginning of his book of conversations with Robert Craft serve extremely well: ‘In the Kingdom of the Father there is no drama but only dialogue, which is disguised monologue.’

Ivan Moody © 1991

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