Symphony of Psalms


Dr. Roger Miller, Professor Emeritus  University of Utah School of Music


In Utah Chamber Artists’ “Psalms and Symphonies” concert
next Monday, February 27th,
we are exploring symphonies and psalms.

A symphony of color.  Symphony Homes. Symphony dresses. Symphony mattresses.

Romantics even speak of “Life as a symphony,” with all its ups and downs, sunshine and shadows–a complex tapestry of interwoven threads.

So many ways in which this word is used, referencing some form of grand unity, where everything works together to make a pleasing or eloquent statement.  But these are extensions of the base meaning, which, after all, comes from the world of music.  Going back to its Greek origins, “symphonia” means literally, “A consonance or harmony of sounds, agreeable to the ear, whether the sounds are vocal or instrumental, or both.”  Still pretty broad . . . so what, musically speaking, is a symphony?  Nowadays, “symphony” is likely to mean a symphony orchestra.  Especially, a large group of instrumentalists performing classical music on a concert stage, whether or not the music played is actually a symphony in the modern musical sense.  Consequently, we need to distinguish between “symphony” as a type of musical composition and “symphony” as a group of musicians playing orchestral instruments.


What we think of as the modern symphony emerged from the world of dance in late 16th-centuryItaly.  Small instrumental ensembles, whose previous role had been primarily accompanimental, began to assume more independence.  Even though still grounded in suites of popular dances, their music itself was found to be enjoyable on its own.  At the same time, the size and instrumental make-up of such ensembles became more standardized.  During the 17th and 18th centuries, this newly appreciated instrumental music gradually led to the idea of the “concert.”  The dance types became more and more stylized, often introduced by some sort of overture, which assumed a form of its own; little by little the number of dances decreased, until only one or two minuets remained.  In the late 18th century, the number and general character of the separate “movements” (notice the dance-based word) stabilized:  The first movement–an extended statement almost always informed by standard rhetorical gestures borrowed from spoken oratory–was followed by a slow movement in the form of a song or a slow, stately dance.  The third and fourth movements were variable; if there were four movements, the third would be a minuet and trio, and the fourth would be a lively dance, such as a jig (gigue).  However, if, as often happened, the “symphony” consisted of only three movements, the minuet was omitted.



Franz Josef Haydn

This process of stabilization was still in flux when Josef Haydn became Kapellmeister for a family of powerful Hungarian nobles–the Esterhazy’s–headquartered near Vienna, with a beautiful summer palace just over the border in modern Hungary.  Always looking for novel ways to please his very sophisticated patrons, Haydn composed more than 100 major works in this general format.  As its principal architect, he is known today as the “father of the symphony.”  Recognizable since the 1750s (as established by Haydn and his contemporaries) and lasting as an important genre well into the 20th century, the symphony has become the prime symbol of classical orchestral music.  In the hands of Beethoven, Haydn’s artistic successor, it became synonymous with the highest, most serious manifestation of musical art–not merely a vehicle of entertainment but a means of giving voice to the most direct and powerful human emotions and the most profound of thoughts.  Exactly what form of thought music might represent was a question for philosophers, but the general consensus seemed to be that music, when seriously approached, enabled the mind to probe realms of experience and understanding otherwise inaccessible.  The symphony was thus elevated to heights equal to the great literatures of the world. The only thing more powerful and ennobling than music alone would be the greatest music coupled with the most exalted poetry.  Inevitably, such was the course of the symphony in the 19th century, as music in general followed the currents of Romanticism.

Ludwig van Beethoven


Composers after Beethoven (who pioneered the joining of words and music in his 9th Symphony) began to experiment with new forms of musical architecture, in the process abandoning most of the remaining connections to the old dance suites. The center of gravity, so to speak, shifted from the first movement to the last–the so-called “finale.”  Instead of concluding with a stylized, light-hearted dance, the whole symphony was now directed toward an inevitable, usually heroic, climax or apotheosis.  New forms, such as the “tone poems” and “program symphonies” by Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, and others, were based on overt connections to the written word.  Continuity in such works depended on the structure of the words, themselves, thus negating the reason for the old concept of separate “movements” based on dance structures.  If unity was the goal, the continual starting and stopping of the traditional multi-movement symphony was viewed as a hindrance.  Later composers, such as Mahler, formed a successful amalgamation of the program symphony (with its poetic connections and continuous movement) and the former classical symphony, built on multiple movements.  As the total duration of the symphony increased, it became possible to envision each movement as something like an act in a drama. Each movement, though self-contained, contributed to the overall effect leading to the final dénoument.  Thus, Mahler could assert that it was possible for a symphony to contain an entire world.  And the 20th-century composer Olivier Messiaen could compose his Turangalila Symphony (1946) with ten movements, which he described as a “love song” without hesitating to call it a “symphony.”



Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is a three-movement work for orchestra and chorus, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was composed in 1930.  Although the date places it in Stravinsky’s “neo-classic” period, there is little in it to connect with what we traditional think of as “classical” music, that is, the age of Haydn and Mozart.  In fact, it is a deliberately austere reflection or meditation on the being of God and man’s relation to Him, based on three psalms taken from the Latin Vulgate: Psalms 38:13-14 (1st movement), 39:2-4 (2nd movement), and 150 in its entirety (3rd movement), or, following the King James Version: Psalms 39:12-13, 40:1-3, and 150.  As can easily be seen, the three texts form a logical sequence:  The initial cry, the waiting and the rescue, and a new song of praise.

Exaudi orationem meam, Domine                         Hear my prayer, O Lord,
et deprecationem meam                                         And give ear unto my cry;
auribus percipe lacrimas meas                               Hold not thy peace at my tears:
ne sileas
quoniam advena ego sum apud te                          For I am a stranger with thee,
et peregrinus                                                             and a sojourner,
sicut omnes patres mei                                            as all my fathers were.
remitte mihi ut refrigerer                                       O spare me, that I may recover strength,
priusquam abeam                                                     before I go hence
et amplius non ero                                                    And be no more.


Expectans expectavi Dominum                             I waited patiently for the Lord;
et intendit mihi                                                         And he inclined unto me,
et exaudivit preces meas                                        And heard my cry.
et eduxit me de lacu miseriae                                He brought me up out of the horrible pit,
et de luto fecis                                                          Out of the miry clay,
et statuit super petram pedes meos                     And set my feet upon a rock,
et direxit gressus meos                                           And established my goings.
et inmisit in os meum canticum novum                And he hath put a new song in my mouth
carmen Deo nostro                                                   Even praise unto our God:
videbunt multi et timebunt                                    Many shall see it, and fear,
et sperabunt in Domino                                          And shall trust in the Lord.


Alleluia                                                                      Alleluia. [Praise ye the Lord.]
laudate Dominum in sanctis eius                           Praise God in his sanctuary:
laudate eum in firmamento virtutis eius              Praise him in the firmament of his power.
laudate eum in virtutibus eius                               Praise him for his mighty acts:
laudate eum secundum multitudinem                  Praise him according to his excellent
magnitudinis eius                                                     greatness
laudate eum in sono tubae                                      Praise him with the sound of the trumpet:
laudate eum in psalterio et cithara                        Praise him with the psaltery and harp.
laudate eum in tympano et choro                          Praise him with the timbrel and dance:
laudate eum in cordis et organo                             Praise him with stringed instruments and                                                                                       organs.

laudate eum in cymbalis bene sonantibus            Praise him upon the loud cymbals:
laudate eum in cymbalis iubilationis                      Praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
omnis spiritus laudet Dominum Lord                    Let everything that hath breath praise the                                                                                      Lord.


The breathing of wind instruments…

This auspicious collection of words is supported by an orchestra consisting of a large wind ensemble without clarinets plus a string section without violins and violas.  Stravinsky described his original conception thus:

“My first sound-image as of an all-male chorus and orchestre d’harmonie [woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments].  I thought, for a moment, of the organ, but I dislike . . . the fact that the monster never breathes.  The breathing of wind instruments is one of their primary attractions for me. “

As first conceived, the all-male chorus was to be composed of mature men’s voices plus treble parts for boys with unchanged voices, but the final score allows for “children’s voices, which may be replaced by female voices (soprano and alto) if a children’s choir is not available.”

Music – “The Church’s Greatest Ornament”

The effect of this combination–a sometimes dark, rather somber, emotionally detached sound–is intentional.  As we shall see below, Stravinsky’s idea of devotion and even religious ecstasy has more to do with one’s own person–a kind of inward awe–rather than an outward show of emotion.  First-time listeners are sometimes puzzled, perhaps disappointed, in what is perceived as a lack of expression, that is, the traditional romantic effervescence audiences are accustomed to in much of the religious music of recent centuries.  But as Stravinsky explained in his famous Harvard lectures, “I believe that music is powerless to express anything at all . . .”  What he meant by that has been the subject of endless debate, but what is fairly sure is that he rejected the notion that music can, or ought to be made the servant of raw emotion or anything that might be construed as vulgar display.  He called music “the Church’s greatest ornament,” and he himself, after youthful rebellion lasting thirty years, became a committed Christian in the Orthodox tradition.

His comments regarding that reconversion, made in the final phase of his life, are enlightening and worthy of thoughtful consideration in our own time:

“I cannot now evaluate the events that, at the end of those thirty years, made me discover the necessity of religious belief. I was not reasoned into my disposition. Though I admire the structured thought of theology (Anselm’s proof in the Fides Quaerens Intellectum, for instance) it is to religion no more than counterpoint exercises are to music. I do not believe in bridges of reason or, indeed, in any form of extrapolation in religious matters. … I can say, however, that for some years before my actual “conversion,” a mood of acceptance had been cultivated in me by a reading of the Gospels and by other religious literature.”

It is in this very context that a hearing of the Symphony of Psalms may be most rewarding.  Because of the work’s austerity, we may be wrongly led into the belief that it is a product of “cold” reason rather than “warm” faith.  But the exact opposite is true. Music doesn’t require emotional props any more than faith requires intellectual props.  It is in the very absence of “persuasion,” whether intellectual or emotional, that the core of belief is most meaningful.   

Igor Stravinsky


Originally, the three movements were titled: Prélude, Double Fugue, and Allegro symphonique.  Later Stravinsky dropped these titles, but they are still useful as descriptive guides, suggesting that he may have seen this work as more closely related to the old Baroque suite than to a symphony in the modern sense.  But Stravinsky himself has given us a wonderful introduction to it, so let’s conclude our discussion by taking a look at what he said.

“The commissioning of the Symphony of Psalms began with the publisher’s routine suggestion that I write something popular.  I took the word, not in the publisher’s meaning of ‘adapting to the understanding of the people,’ but in the sense of ‘something universally admired.’ And I even chose Psalm 150 in part for its popularity, though the many composers who had abused these magisterial verses as pegs for their own lyrico-sentimental ‘feelings.’ The Psalms are poems of exaltation, but also of anger and judgment, and even of curses.  Although I regarded Psalm 150 as a song to be danced, a David danced before theArk, I knew that I would have to treat it in an imperative way.  My publisher had requested an orchestral piece without chorus, but I had had the psalm symphony idea in mind for some time, and that is what I insisted on composing.  All of the music was written in Nice and in my summer home at Echarvines [in the French Alps].  … After finishing the fast-tempo sections of the Psalm, I went back to compose the first and second movements.  The Alleluia and the slow music at the beginning of Psalm 150, which is an answer to the question in Psalm 40, were written last.”

I was much concerned, in setting the Psalm verses, with problems of tempo.  To me, the relation of tempo and meaning is a primary question of musical order, and until I am certain that I have found the right tempo, I cannot compose.  Superficially, the texts suggested a variety of speeds, but this variety was without shape.  At first, and until I understood that God must not be praised in fast, forte music, no matter how often the text specifies ‘loud’ I thought of the final hymn in a too-rapid pulsation.  This is the manner question again, of course.  Can one say the same thing in several ways?  I cannot, in any case, and to me the only possible way could not be more clearly initiated among all the choices if it were painted blue.  I also cannot say whether a succession of choices results in a ‘style,’ but my own description of style is tact-in-action, and I prefer to talk about the action of a musical sentence than to talk about its style.

The first movement, ‘Hear my prayer, O Lord,’ was composed in a state of religious and musical ebullience.  The sequences of two minor thirds joined by a major third, the root idea of the whole work, were derived from the trumpet-harp motive at the beginning of the allegro in Psalm 150.  I was not aware of Phrygian modes, Gregorian chants, Byzantinisms, or anything of the sort, while composing this music, though, of course, influences said to be denoted by such scriptwriters’ baggage-stickers may very well have been operative. Byzantiumwas a source of Russian culture, after all, and according to current indexing I am classifiable as a Russian, but the little I know about Byzantine music was learned from Wellesz [a well known 20th-century musicologist] long after I had composed the Symphony of Psalms.  I did start to compose the Psalms in Slavonic, though, and only after coming a certain distance did I switch to Latin) just as I worked with English the same time as Hebrew in Abraham and Isaac).

The ‘Waiting for the Lord‘ Psalm [Psalm 40] makes the most overt use of musical symbolism in any of my music before The Flood.  An upside-down pyramid of fugues, it begins with a purely instrumental fugue of limited compass and employs only solo instruments.  The restriction to treble range was the novelty of this initial fugue, but the limitation to flutes and oboes proved its most difficult compositional problem.  The subject was developed form the sequence of thirds used as an ostinato in the first movement.  The next and higher stage of the upside-down pyramid is the human fugue [the fugue of voices that begins the second section], which does not begin without instrumental help for the reason that I modified the structure as I composed and decided to overlap instruments and voices to give the material more development, but the human choir is heard a cappella after that.  The human fugue also represents a higher level in the architectural symbolism by the fact that it expands into the bass register.  The third stage, the upside-down foundation, unites the two fugues.

Though I chose Psalm 150 first, and thought my first musical idea was the already-quoted rhythmic figure in that movement, I could not compose the beginning of it until I had written the second movement.  Psalm 40 is a prayer that a new canticle [new song] may be put into our mouths.  The Alleluia is that canticle (the word alleluia still reminds me of the Hebrew galosh-merchant Gurian who lived in the apartment below ours in St. Petersburg, and who on High Holy Days would erect a prayer tent in his living room and dress himself in an Ephod.  The hammering sounds as he built this tent and the idea of a cosmopolitan merchant in a St. Petersburg apartment simulating the prayers of his forefathers in the desert impressed by imagination almost as profoundly as any direct religious experience of my own.)  The rest of the slow-tempo introduction, the Laudate Dominum, was originally composed to the words of the Gospodi Pomiluy.  This section is a prayer to the Russian image of the infant Christ with orb-and-scepter.  I decided to end the work with this music, too, as an apotheosis of the sort that had become a pattern in my music since the epithalamium at the end of Les Noces. The allegro in Psalm 150 was inspired by a vision of Elijah’s chariot climbing the Heavens; never before had I written anything quite so literal as the triplets for horns and piano to suggest the horses and chariot.  The final hymn of praise must be thought of as issuing from the skies, and agitation is followed by ‘the calm of praise,’ but such statements embarrass me.  What I can say is that in setting the words of this final hymn, I cared above all for the sounds of the syllables, and I have indulged my besetting pleasure of regulating prosody in my own way.  I really do tire of people pointing out that Dominum is one word and that its meaning is obscured by the way I respirate it, like the Alleluia in the Sermon, which has reminded everybody of the Psalms.  Do such people know nothing about word-splitting in early polyphonic music”? One hopes to worship God with a little art if one has any, and if one hasn’t, and cannot recognize it in others, then one can at least burn a little incense.

Quotes are taken from Dialogues and a Diary by Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Doubleday and Co., 1963, and Robert M. Copeland, 1982, “The Christian Message of Igor Stravinsky,” The Musical Quarterly 68, no. 4 (October): 563–79.


Every piece of great music creates a space–perhaps an interior landscape of some sort, perhaps a spiritual locus.  It may be the product of textures and colors, of harmonies, or a particular melodic turn of phrase that strikes us in a certain way.  It can even be found in standard rhetorical devices and topics, where we recognize in the music certain extra-musical elements, such as a military theme or the movement of water.  Or it may be the combination of several, or all, of these things.  Perhaps this is what Mahler meant when he said a symphony could contain a world.  That is what a work of art does: it creates a virtuality, where there is mental space for us to build our world-images.  As in drawing or painting, these virtual spaces may be abstract or concrete, miniature or grand, but the music creates room in which to maneuver our inner thoughts and sensibilities. “Getting lost” in these art-created surroundings is the reason we so often push the music to the background or lose it entirely, as the ear drifts into new states of consciousness.  Yet, it is not music as distraction but music as focuser that interests Stravinsky: the more intense the induction, the more real the transformation of time and space.  The most intent listener, the one who becomes totally absorbed in the music will find an infinitely deepened understanding of that inner world where true faith resides.

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