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Symphony of Psalms (1930, rev. 1948)

Compiled by Andrew Kuster

Background Information for Symphony of Psalms

Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms was commissioned by the Boston Symphony for its fiftieth anniversary and first performed in December of 1930. "This symphony composed to the glory of GOD is dedicated to the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary." The root idea of the entire symphony is "the sequences of two minor thirds joined by a major third" (Stravinsky & Craft: 1968, 45), or in other words the set [0,1,3,4]. In the first movement, Stravinsky expands this set to create an octatonic scale on e (the c#/d octatonic collection), which is exploited throughout the movement.

Symphony of Psalms is scored for timpani, bass drum, harp, two pianos, cellos and basses. "The choir should contain children's voices, which may be replaced by female voices (soprano and alto) if a children's choir is not available."

"The three parts of this symphony are to be played without a break. The words of the Psalms are those of the Vulgata and should be sung in Latin."

The movements are as follows:

  1. Psalm 38:13-14 (Prelude)
  2. Psalm 39:2-4 (Double Fugue)
  3. Psalm 150 (Allegro symphonique)

I. [Exaudi orationem meam]

Text source: Vulgate Psalm 38:13-14
(Capitalization and punctuation are Stravinsky's)

13 Exaudi orationem meam, Domine,
et depreciationem meam:
auribus percipe lacrymas meas.
Ne sileas. Quoniam advena sum apud te,
et peregrinus,
sicut omnes patres mei.
14 Remitte mihi, ut refrigere
priusquam abeam, et amplius non ero.

Translation: New Jerusalem Bible Psalm 39:12-13

12 Yahweh, hear my prayer,
listen to my cry for help,
do not remain deaf to my weeping.
For I am a stranger in your house,
a nomad like all my ancestors.
13 Turn away your gaze that I may breathe freely
before I depart and am no more!

The first movement of the Symphony of Psalms, its shortest movement, is formed of a juxtaposition of recurring ostinato-like patterns and orchestral punctuations where motion seems to stop. The first bar is one such punctuation: an e-minor chord spaced symmetrically (E, G, B, g, g', e", g", b"), the g excessively doubled. Immediately, a pattern of arpeggiated dominant seventh chords on Bb (ascending) and G (first inversion, descending) recur. The pitch collection formed in these first few measures is the c#/d octatonic scale.

At ms. 12-13 an upward moving f-dorian scale (of which all pitches but one, the c, are also contained in the c#/d octatonic collection) sounds in the pianos and oboe. At ms. 15 an e-Phrygian quasi-ostinato (of which all pitches but two, the a and the c, are also contained in the c#/d octatonic collection) is established over a strong E pedal (the e-minor punctuation chord of the opening is now common to both the octatonic material of ms. 2 ff and the "white note" e-Phrygian modal material of ms. 12 ff). The pedal soon moves, and before ms. 25, establishes the c#/d octatonic scale from e to b-flat, the tritone above e.

The altos enter at ms. 26 with a melody made only of a slowly and plaintively (as appropriate for the supplicative psalm) alternating between e and f over a woodwind ostinato pattern based on the c#/d octatonic collection. The half-step melody can be derived from the first two degrees of the octatonic opening section (as the octatonic scale is itself composed of four pairs of half-steps a whole-step apart). At ms. 33 the full chorus enters on g-major over an additive pattern in the orchestra.

After a short interlude in ms. 37-40 during which the oboe floats down over sustained "white-note" flute chords (in fact, a widely-spaced b-diminished triad with doubled d over a middle c), in ms. 41 the alto returns, now doubled two octaves above by the flute, with the narrow e-f melody over an orchestral ostinato (again the c#/d octatonic collection). In ms. 47 an e-minor seventh arpeggio sweeps up in the winds followed by the opening e-minor punctuation chord.

The first forte tutti section of the piece begins at ms. 49, as c-major seventh arpeggios sound over a pedal e in the orchestral basses and the tenor and alto voices. The c-major seventh slowly decays, yet only white-notes sound from ms. 48-52 in contrast to the earlier octatonic material. Another e-minor punctuation chord sounds at the end of ms. 52.

The basses and altos enter in octave b's (perhaps dominant-feeling, or linking to the later-prominent g pitch center) at ms. 53 in a melody characterized by its wide leaps (octave up, major second down, minor seventh down). The low double reeds and trombones play staccato quasi-ostinato patterns behind the voices beginning on an e-minor chord, as the tenors and sopranos join the chorus. Gradually, the entire orchestra enters and builds to a fortissimo climax at ms. 65 when the chorus sings an e-minor second inversion chord over the orchestral c-major seventh ostinato. The ostinato changes from the c seventh, but remains only white-notes as the earlier climax at ms. 49-52.

The orchestral dynamics suddenly drop to piano at ms. 68. The tenors sing the opening vocal melody on e and f as the other voices join in similar narrow-ranged melodies to the end of the movement. In ms. 75-76 the orchestral bass descends by whole-tones until the closing g is reached by a half-step (in keeping with the c#/d octatonic collection, and also feeling like a Phrygian closure).

The first movement ends on a g-major chord, which sets up the opening c-minor fugal exposition of the second movement by acting as its dominant. Even at the beginning of the movement the pitch g was given great weight through doubling The dichotomy (or dual axis) of e and g and their "polar attraction" (Stravinsky: 1956, 38) form the basis of much speculation and fascinating analysis.

II. [Expectans expectavi Dominum]

Text source: Vulgate Psalm 39:2-4
(Capitalizaion and punctuation are Stravinsky's)

2 Expectans expectavi Dominum et intendit mihi.
3 Et exaudivit preces meas;
et eduxit me de lacu miseriae, et de luto fecis.
Et statuit super petram pedes meos:
et direxit gressus meos.
4 Et inmisit in os meum canticum novum,
carmen Deo nostro.
Videbunt multi et timebunt:
et sperabunt in Domino.

Translation: New Jerusalem Psalm 40:1-3

1 I waited, I waited for Yahweh, then he stooped to me and heard my cry for help.
2 He pulled me up from the seething chasm, from the mud of the mire.
He set my feet on rock,
and made my footsteps firm.
3 He put a fresh song in my mouth,
praise of our God.
Many will be awestruck at the sight,
and will put their trust in Yahweh.

III. [Laudate Dominum]

Vulgate Psalm 150
(Stravinsky alters this text.)

1 Alleluia
Laudate Dominum in sanctis eius
laudate eum in firmamento virutis eius
2 laudate eium in virtutibus eius
laudate eium secundum multitudinem magnitudinis eius
3 laudate eum in sono tubae
laudate eum in psalterio et cithara
4 laudate eum in tympano et choro
laudate eum in cordis et organo
5 laudate eum in cymbalis bene sonantibus
laudate eum in cymbalis iubilationis
6 omnis spiritus laudet Dominum

New Jerusalem Psalm 150

1 Alleluia!
Praise God in his holy place,
praise him in the heavenly vault of his power,
2 praise him for his mighty deeds,
praise him for all his greatness.
3 Praise him with fanfare of trumpet,
praise him with harp and lyre,
4 praise him with tamborines and dancing,
praise him with strings and pipes,
5 praise him with the clamour of cymbals,
praise him with triumphant cymbals,
6 Let everything that breathes praise Yahweh.


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