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.
from notes by Ivan Moody © 1991