Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971). Symphony of Psalms (1930)

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As success followed success, especially in the three ballets he wrote for the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, Stravinsky lived the life of a world-famous composer and pianist. He lived the life of a celebrity. He also lived a double life.

Igor Stravinsky, c. 1930

Hi everybody, I’m Kile Smith, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection.

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In his eighties, Igor Stravinsky was taking stock of his life. The composer of Firebird and Petrushka and his most famous work, The Rite of Spring, that century-altering explosion of pagan ritual and sensuality, wrote this:

I was born out of time in the sense that by temperament and talent I would have been more suited for the life of a small Bach, living in anonymity and composing regularly for an established service and for God. I did weather the world I was born to, weathered it well, you will say, and I have survived—though not uncorrupted.

This is what Stravinsky thought about himself. We see him as a wild modernist but he considered himself a traditionalist, a Kapellmeister serving God and mankind. Or perhaps that’s only what he wished to have been.

We do know that Stravinsky had a complicated relationship with religion, specifically, his religion, the Russian Orthodox Church. He was baptized into it as a child, but his family, other than observing the major feasts, was not devout. He fell away from it completely as a young man—a common tale. As musical success followed success, especially in those three ballets he wrote for the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, Stravinsky lived the life of a world-famous composer and pianist. He was a celebrity.

He also lived a double life. He was married but he indulged in dalliances with such as Coco Chanel and Vera Sudeikin, who left her husband a year into her affair with Stravinsky. This was after the end of World War I and that other great conflagration of the time, the Russian Revolution. Stravinsky had moved his family permanently out of Russia, to France, to a high-society resort near the border of Spain. Hanging out in Anglet and Biarritz in the 1920s were the Prince of Wales, the King of Spain, Buster Keaton, Igor Stravinsky’s wife and children, and on occasion, Igor Stravinsky.

But in Paris Stravinsky kept an apartment for Vera. Stravinsky was often in Paris.

His life, complicated enough, now became stranger. He moved his family to Nice. A friend, Russian Orthodox priest Father Nicholas, persuaded Stravinsky to visit the Orthodox church, the adopted parish of many Russian emigrés. Stravinsky went once, and he kept going. For years he went just about every day. “I want to pray in the language that I have grown accustomed to doing since childhood,” he recalled. He rededicated himself to the religion he was baptized into, buying Byzantine icons as gifts for friends and as spiritual reminders constantly before him in his study.

He was bedeviled by an abscess in a finger on his right hand, a terrible wound for a pianist to have, and this just before he was to play a concert in Venice. He went to church and prayed for the finger to be healed. Then he proceeded to the concert. Before sitting down at the piano he apologized to the audience that his performance would not be his best. He sat down, removed the bandage from his finger, and discovered that the abscess had completely vanished. He would tell this story later in life. He always considered it a miracle.

1930 was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. To celebrate, its music director, Serge Koussevitzky, filled the season with new commissions. One of the composers he approached was Stravinsky, and the composer used this as a vehicle he had had in mind for years, a choral symphony with Psalms. But to call it a “choral symphony” may be misleading. He described it this way: “It is not a symphony in which I have included Psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing.”

Even though this Symphony of Psalms was filled with singing that sounded like chant, Stravinsky had no wish to copy church music practice, and in fact admitted that he knew nothing of church modes. As for the orchestra, it’s a strange instrumentation. He beefed up the flutes, oboes, and bassoons but removed all clarinets. There are a couple of extra trumpets in the brass section, and to the timpani the only percussion he added was the bass drum. Two pianos and a harp have important roles. However, the most noticeable difference from a standard orchestra is that, of all the strings, the only representatives of that family on stage are cellos and double basses. There are no violins, there are no violas. That large gap in the orchestral soundscape makes room for the choir and, I think, lends an extra snarl to the woodwinds.

Stravinsky had set the stage for an idealized chanting of the Psalm texts he selected. He set it in Latin, further idealizing the piece. He employed a rhythmic, off-kilter way of laying syllables down, a recognizable element of his style in many of his works. This technique hits us with a surprising power. It distances the Symphony of Psalms from a romantic leaning, on Stravinsky’s part, to his rediscovered Orthodox faith. He also went with Latin because he knew that very few choirs would want to sing in Russian. And from the Soviet Union, whose leaders he despised for wiping out his tradition, he expected no performances anyway.

As for the Psalms, he chose (according to the numbering most use) parts of 39, 40, and 150. All the texts are fairly short. The symphony’s three movements correspond to these texts; they are to be performed without pause. He composed this in reverse order, beginning with the most popular Psalm, 150.

You could label the movements as: (1) Hear me, Lord; (2) The Lord heard me; and (3) Praise the Lord. The text to the first movement, in English, is this:

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
And give ear to my cry;
Do not be silent at my tears;
For I am a stranger with You,
A sojourner, as all my fathers were.
Remove Your gaze from me, that I may regain strength,
Before I go away and am no more.

It’s a cry from the heart, but as is Stravinsky’s way, all sentimentality is stripped from it. He plunks down a remarkably voiced simple E minor chord, with a strong emphasis on the third of the chord, which is G. He then throws us headlong into churning woodwinds and a peek at the chant given by the French horn, which is taken up by a solo cello in its higher register.


Immediately you see why he left out the high strings. The yearning quality of the cello, playing that high, carries a fragile passion that could not be duplicated by the violin, which would play these notes in its normal, safe register. Do not believe anyone who says there’s little emotion in Stravinsky. Do not even believe Stravinsky himself when he says such things. Emotion drips out of every note: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry.”

A word about the harmony. Much has been written of Stravinsky’s use of what is called the octatonic scale. Most classical or pop music we hear, major or minor keys, uses a basic scale of seven pitches. If you start at A, that’d come out to A, B, C, D, E, F, G. That’s seven notes, and when you hit A you’re back to number 1. Any of those letters you can modify with sharps or flats, but no matter how you slice it, it’ll be seven of them.

This is true anywhere in the world. If you include all the sharps and flats—all the half-steps, that is—you get 12 pitches, and music using all 12 notes is something western classical music has been concerned with since at least Richard Wagner. But all cultures use seven-pitch scales, or sometimes six or five, to build their music on. There are some examples of creating scales with more than 12 pitches, although in so-called world music how much of that is intentional and how much comes out of tuning irregularities is up for debate.

But somewhere along the way somebody figured out that, without slicing smaller than a half-step, you could squeeze one more note into the seven-note scale. You do that by alternating half-steps with whole steps: either A, B-flat, C, D-flat, E-flat, and so on; or A, B, C, D, E-flat, and so on. If you do that, you wind up with eight instead of seven, or an octatonic scale. It sounds … tonal, but weird, and a big part of that weirdness is that you don’t hear the perfect fifth.

Now, go back to those churning woodwinds at the beginning and you can make a good case that Stravinsky’s using octatonic music here. As far as I know Stravinsky never claims it, though. He says that it’s “the sequences of two minor thirds joined by a major third… derived from the trumpet-harp motive at the beginning of the allegro in Psalm 150.” So, he composed the third movement, Psalm 150, first, and then used that music to work out the first two movements.

So there’s that, and there’s also this: listen to the woodwind music within the context of everything else, it’s just E minor with a lot of extraneous notes. Everything else, the woodwind skirling, the bass lines which at times sound for all the world like F minor, just function as color for E minor. And—you hear perfect fifths all over the place.

So, I don’t make too much of the octatonic talk, but I’m no music theorist, that’s just how I hear it. Very interesting to me is how the first movement ends, after all this, on the very note Stravinsky hit so hard at the beginning, G. He lands on a G major chord, in fact, which leads so traditionally and nicely to C, the very first note of the second movement, and it’s here we realize that the first movement was all along a prelude.

Here’s the second movement’s text:

I waited patiently for the Lord;
And He inclined to me,
And heard my cry.
He also brought me up out of a horrible pit,
Out of the miry clay,
And set my feet upon a rock,
And established my steps.
He has put a new song in my mouth—
Praise to our God;
Many will see it and fear,
And will trust in the Lord.

It starts, “I waited patiently for the Lord,” and we have to be patient before the choir enters, as Stravinsky unfolds an exquisitely crafted fugue for the woodwinds. It’s a double fugue, actually, meaning that there are two main subjects, although the second one is brought in, after our patient wait, by the sopranos. The counterpoint is very chromatic, so gnarly that at times it’s difficult to know where we are. But this comes from the text, after all, the “horrible pit,” the “miry clay”—all of this we have to get through while waiting patiently.

This makes the landing—“set my feet upon a rock”—even more solid, and, at “He has put a new song in my mouth,” even more spectacular.


The third movement sets most of Psalm 150, which must be, after Psalm 23, the most popular of the Psalms. Stravinsky’s publisher, understandably desiring to make money, wanted him to write something popular for this commission, so we might think they had something to do with it. But, they also wanted him to stay away from a choral symphony, so he may not have cared too much about what his publisher wanted. In any case, here’s a translation of the text he used:

Praise the Lord.
Praise God in His holiness.
Praise Him in the firmament of His power.
Praise Him in His noble acts.
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness.
Praise Him in the sound of the trumpet.
Praise him with the lute and harp.
Praise him with strings and organ.
Praise him with loud cymbals, praise him with high-sounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Stravinsky omits about a verse and a half but inserts “Alleluia” at the beginning, middle, and end, to which I raise an eyebrow. “Alleluia” means, after all, “Praise the Lord,” just as the Hebrew “Hallelujah” does, and just as “Laudate Dominum” in the Psalm does. So why put it in? I think it simply must be a musical decision. Stravinsky bookends this finale with “Alleluia,” and sets it with the most romantic chords you’ll hear in any Stravinsky.


The text-setting progresses with that Stravinskian combination of offset and detached syllables, which he uses when he wants to evoke the heightened feeling of excitement, anticipation … in a word: breathlessness. With all the examples in the Psalm of how and with what to praise the Lord, Stravinsky has no qualms in overlapping text. He repeats “Praise him,” or “Laudate eum” often.

At one point we hear this:


Stravinsky went entirely out of the Psalms for this passage. He said, “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.”

Finally, at the words, “Praise him with loud cymbals, praise him with high-sounding cymbals,” Stravinsky composed some of the most affecting and haunting music of his life. In E-flat now, the timpani and low strings lay down a four-note sequence of half notes—E-flat, B-flat, F, B-flat—over and over again. Each note is separated by the interval of a fourth from its neighbor, each note sounds like the final note, each note sounds like the tonic of the key, but each note peacefully hands off its power to the next note, then the next note, then the next note. This sequence happens 32 times.


We are spinning by now, unmoored from key or chord or even melody as the choir chants in peaceful yet sinuous yet ever-shifting chromatics, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” It sounds like it could go on for an eternity. We want it to go on for eternity.

And then, one more “Alleluia.” And then, one more Laudate Dominum, “Praise the Lord.”

I don’t know what you think, but I feel that Symphony of Psalms is the greatest work by the greatest composer of the twentieth century. I say “I feel” rather than “I think” because all such pronouncements are a bit silly. There is so much great music, and who am I to pronounce. And yet, I don’t feel silly for thinking it. Igor Stravinsky’s dedication, in French, says: “This symphony, composed to the glory of God, is dedicated to the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary.”

The recording I’ve chosen is from 1984. Riccardo Chailly conducts the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. On Fleisher Discoveries, Igor Stravinsky, the Symphony of Psalms.

[Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971). Symphony of Psalms (1930)]

The Symphony of Psalms by Igor Stravinsky, composed in 1930 for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 50th anniversary. The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus was conducted by Riccardo Chailly. This is Fleisher Discoveries and I’m Kile Smith.

Stravinsky’s spiritual awakening was real, although he admitted that his religious observance was spotty, after the time leading up to the Symphony of Psalms. During that time, along with almost daily attendance at the Orthodox church, he wrote a long letter to Diaghilev, asking for forgiveness for any wrongs he had done to him, almost as if he were in a 12-step program. Diaghilev would die in 1929, only 57 years old. Stravinsky was still married, was still in his relationship with Vera Sudeikin, but when his wife died in 1939, he and Vera left France, ending up finally in the United States, where they married and became U.S. citizens. He continued composing of course, and many of these last works were sacred. He once said:

When in early childhood I discovered that I had been made the custodian of musical aptitudes I pledged myself to God to be worthy of their development, though, of course, I have broken the pledge and received uncovenanted mercies all my life, and though the custodian has all too often kept faith on his all-too-worldly terms.

He died in 1971. His body was flown to Venice, the city of his miracle, and he was buried next to Sergei Diaghilev.

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Karen is a fellow composer and wrote in to say how much she enjoyed our Marianne Martines show, and especially found “the little history of the occupants of her house to be quite informative and just plain interesting.” Thanks for that, Karen! Also, Megan wrote in after coming across a show from a while back on Roger Goeb. Megan is related to some of the people involved with the music we played, and is checking out the music of Roger Goeb, so I’m just pleased as punch to hear about that!

Thanks for all of your comments, I appreciate it! And remember that all of our podcasts are available all of the time, so do check us out anytime for what we hope are the enlightening stories and wonderful pieces we uncover for every show. Stay tuned for more Fleisher Discoveries podcasts coming to you every month, right here.

And thanks for joining me on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well, and I’ll catch up with you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.