June 8, 2004

CSO and Motet Choir breathe life into Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms

The Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) is generally regarded as one of the most original and versatile artists in the history of Western music. His output includes practically all the important genres cultivated in the twentieth century: ballet, chamber music, opera, symphony, cantata, oratorio, song, and piano music as well as new, across-the-lines vocal and instrumental genres. At various moments in his career, Stravinsky made use of a variety of musical resources, techniques, forms, and elements—ranging from the splendor of Baroque fugue to the intricacies of serialism. He believed that each composition had to be created "anew," according to a set of rules exclusively established by the composer for that particular work. And his output shows that he indeed worked according to this belief. This aesthetic stance explains why—underneath the surface of a general Stravinskyan sound common to practically all of the composer's works—striking differences in conception are usually perceived between any two of his compositions.

Although each of Stravinsky's works bears the imprint of originality, the composer's general output can be divided into various periods, in which general aesthetic, stylistic and technical elements are shared by different compositions. The years between 1903 and 1908 are usually regarded as the composer's period of apprenticeship—a period characterized by Stravinsky's studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and culminating with the composition of his orchestral fantasy Fireworks of 1908. The so-called Russian period extends from 1910 through about 1918 and includes the composition of some of Stravinsky's best known works: the ballets The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913).

The success of The Firebird, a work inspired by Russian fairy tales, established Stravinsky's international reputation practically overnight. Shortly after World War I, the composer took an interest in musical manifestations of the past, incorporating elements from previous periods into his works. Thus between roughly 1920 and 1951, Stravinsky's output can be classified as Neoclassic. The Symphony of Psalms (1930) certainly occupies a central place in his Neoclassical period. 1951 marks a turning point in the composer's development. Some of his works from this year onwards are conceived according to the type of serialist procedures that the Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg had invented in the early 1920s. It is ironic that Stravinsky turned to serialism precisely after Schoenberg's death in 1951.

In order to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony in 1930, the conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned a composition from Stravinsky. Since he was given complete liberty in his choice of genre, form, duration, and—at least to some extent—performing forces of the piece, the composer was free to work with very general guidelines of symphonic composition, rather than within a traditional conception of the symphony. Stravinsky's first decision was to set the Latin text of several verses from different psalms. He then chose specific verses from the Vulgate's psalms 38 and 39, as well as the entire psalm 150. The composer conceived his work as a sacred, three-movement composition, in which the orchestral and choral forces would have equal weight. Stravinsky referred to the piece as "symphonizing of psalm singing" rather than as a symphony including the singing of psalms. Written between January and August 1930, the Symphony of Psalms was "composed to the glory of God and dedicated to the Boston Symphony Orchestra."

Among the most conspicuous features regarding the sound and orchestration of the Symphony of Psalms are the absence of violins, violas, and clarinets from the score; the use of larger sections in the winds; and the prominent use of the piano. Although the score prescribes children's voices, these are seldom included, and, interestingly, the recordings in which the composer conducted performances of his work omit them. In all, novel orchestral and harmonic effects are fused with old techniques. A particularly fascinating instance of this is the double fugue of the second movement where a purely instrumental, highly chromatic first subject (featuring major sevenths and various diminished and augmented intervals) is juxtaposed with a more "vocal" second subject sung by the choir.

This week the University Symphony Orchestra and the Motet Choir will join forces to perform a program that includes three of Stravinsky's most representative compositions: The fantasy for large orchestra Fireworks (1908), the ballet The Firebird (1910) and the Symphony of Psalms (1930). The concert will take place Friday, June 4 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, June 5 at 4 p.m. in Mandel Hall.