Guest Blog: The Marvelous Enigmas of Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms”

From time to time, we invite guest bloggers to share their thoughts about activities of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir. In this post, we welcome Janet, a member of the Symphonic Choir's alto section.

It was mid-October. The choir was sight-singing their way through Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” before submerging in the Christmas concert season. The music was fascinating, but I pulled up abruptly as we meandered our way through the final psalm, Psalm 150. This was not the cheerful, lyrical chant of praise sung by my church choir as we process out at the end of Evensong. Stravinsky’s composition was full of so different emotions, it would take awhile to sort through. What had he been thinking? As I read through countless articles, theses, and Stravinsky quotes, I could find nothing that would illumine my reaction to his Psalm 150. I wondered what was going on in his personal life at this time. I wandered through a voluminous literature, often contradictory, and then found my treasure – a book “Catherine and Igor Stravinsky: A Family Chronicle 1906-1940” written by Stravinsky’s son, Theodore, and Theo’s wife, Denise, that included the period around the composition of the “Symphony of Psalms.”

It all started with a $6000 commission by Serge Koussevitzky for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony in 1930. The money would be welcome. The Stravinskys housed and hosted a large extended family, nannies, tutors, staff and numerous friends. From 1917, when they left Russia, he and his family were constantly moving, either from a winter residence in France to a summer home in Switzerland or southern France, or to new residences. While he received his commission, the family was planning yet another house move from their villa in Nice, France; household expenses were high!

Considering himself an inventor, Stravinsky felt that music was a process by which musical problems could be resolved in novel ways. His first priority was to get the tempo for a piece in his head. Stravinsky composed at the piano, and was fascinated by sounds from unusual chords and intervals. As he sorted through chord sounds and resolved how to get from one to another, preferably in an innovative and unexpected fashion, the composition would begin to take shape. He is quoted as saying “When I work with words in music, my musical saliva is set in motion by the sounds and rhythms of the syllables.” For this Symphony, he would break with traditional symphonic conventions, and introduce a new sound world in which the choir and orchestra would balance each other equally. He would omit violins, violas and expand the use of wind instruments. Part of the fun in singing and listening to this music is trying to discover when sounds of the choir substitute for those string instruments, or duets with the horns, and even suggests the cymbals. Sometimes, words matter, but more often, it is the aggregated sound world of human voices and instruments that assaults the senses.

Stravinsky composed in the morning at home; the household (including his four lively children, their nannies, and their tutors) were ordered to keep absolute silence. When he had finished for that day, the family and their guests would get together for a late luncheon (picnic in summer), and go on rambles around the lake or swim or boat, or hike up the local mountains. For dinner, there were always relatives, friends and acquaintances to provide lively conversations in several languages of happenings and cultural advances in Europe, Russia, England and America. This was a multi-lingual, family-oriented, hospitable household with the welcome firmly established by Stravinsky’s wife, Yekaterina. Stravinsky was a cultured intellectual, and friends with leading artists, writers, philosophers, composers and musicians of his time. His wife had been a singer and fine musician. She gave up her career plans when she married Stravinsky in 1906 and decided to provide a nurturing environment for him. In the evening, there would be intense discussions between Stravinsky, his family and their guests, about books the family was reading, the interpretation of a story someone was reading aloud, or a translation of an essay or book they were attempting, arguing the meaning of words or phrases. Stravinsky would be marking his scores while joining in the discussions. With all this intense attention to books and their interpretation, it is easy to be skeptical about Stravinsky’s insistence on music as a language of pure sounds which one may interpret as one wishes, and to wonder at his choice of Psalms 38, 39 and 150 from the Latin Vulgate if he did not prize their words. When not at home, Stravinsky would be leading a peripatetic life around Europe, mostly in France, searching for a decent studio with enough silence to compose, conducting, or searching for commissions while insisting he be paid for his work. The “Symphony of Psalms” was composed at home and during his travels.

There were religious influences at work too; after all Stravinsky dedicated the “Symphony of Psalms” to the glory of God! When Stravinsky married his cousin in Russia, it was in the face of opposition from the Russian Orthodox Church which did not accept marriage between first cousins. He grew less religious as his life became increasingly turbulent and he struggled to accept his unexpected refugee status, and the concurrent loss of his royalty income. He was in Europe during the 1917 Russian Revolution, when the monarchy was overthrown and Communists took over the government. He and his family found themselves refugees, unable to return to Russia. He resettled in Switzerland and then France. In 1926, he and his wife rejoined the Eastern Orthodox Church for emigres in France. At the time, the Orthodox Church was in turmoil in Russia, caught between the desire to remain autonomous and follow the strict Catholic traditions or come under the control of the new Russian communist state. Stravinsky was knowledgeable in the literature of his church. He would have been well aware of the schism within the church, and the conscious choice of his religious beliefs. Psalm 150, a chant of praise, was the first poem to be selected, in part because he wanted to bring a more austere classical sound and eliminate the lyricism and sentimentality used by composers in the past.

In a commonly used quotation, Stravinsky remarks, “… The final hymn of praise must be thought of as issuing from the skies; agitation is followed by the calm of praise. In setting the words of this final hymn I cared only for the sounds of the syllables and I have indulged to the limit my besetting pleasure of regulating prosody in my own way.”

It is hard to accept that just the “sounds of syllables” would induce the intense emotions I felt in the music while singing his 3rd movement, or explain the enthusiastic responses of audiences.

During this time of composition, Stravinsky was facing a personal dilemma. His wife’s steadily progressing illness was compounded by her unhappiness at his request to accept his mistress, Vera de Bosset, in Paris. He had met Vera three years earlier in 1926 during his frequent travels to France on business. Exhibiting a surprising insensitivity, Stravinsky insisted his wife and children meet his mistress and accept her place in his life. While his ailing wife complied with these requests, and continued to keep a family home and welcome guests, she was miserable at the situation. Stravinsky did not want to give up either his family life or his mistress. While Stravinsky was intensely private, and guarded his personal life closely, his liaison was widely known among his friends and acquaintances. How was he to reconcile his behaviors with his religious beliefs within the Eastern Orthodox Church?

Could the mix of a complex family life, the inability to reconcile with the strictures of his religion and his esthetic drive to invent new musical forms explain why Stravinsky’s Psalm 150 seems so full of emotion? Why the music seems to transcend conflicting emotions to dream of reconciliation and attainment of peace? There is no way to know if Stravinsky used Psalm 150 to express the frustrations, longings, and loves of his family life, or the conflicts of his religious beliefs, or if its composition was merely an intellectual exercise in sounds and phrases that stretched beyond conventional music of that time. It is marvelous enigmatic music that the choir has enjoyed learning, exploring. We look forward to singing it at the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir concert on February 3 at the Schrott Center.

For more information and to purchase tickets to the Saturday, February 3, 7:00 p.m. performance of Stravinsky's “Symphony of Psalms” and the Vaughan Williams “Dona Nobis Pacem,” click here.