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.
from notes by Ivan Moody © 1991