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Symphony of Psalms


A request by Serge Kussevitzsky for a symphony to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1930 resulted in the composition of the Symphony of Psalms. It was preceded by the dramatic works Oedipus Rex and Apollo, which resemble religious works in their grandeur and musical composition, although pagan in subject matter.

The dedication to the Boston Orchestra begins: "Cette Symphonie composée à la glorie de Dieu...". There is no doubt that Stravinsky's faith was authentic at the time the Symphony of Psalms was written. He had become a regular communicant of the Orthodox Church in 1926.

The work represented Stravinsky's need to express his faith and desire to do homage to God. However, the fact that he was a devout believer did not mean that the work ought to be looked upon as a personal confession of faith. It can be understood as a projection of Stravinsky's own faith through the imagined faith of an anonymous congregation. It remains a highly dramatic work nevertheless.

Stravinsky chose three of David's Psalms, in the Latin version of the Vulgate. He treats them in the true spirit of the Old Testament. Man's relation to God, as revealed in the sacred Mosaic texts, is not illumined by grace, which will only be won for the Christians by the advent of the Redeemer. But even to them, grace comes only at very special moments, and it is only on such occasions that faith has the power to solve all the problems of existence, to ease the dramatic tensions of human life, and to calm the turbulence of the spirit. Otherwise faith can only offer the consolation of hope in answer to prayer and invocation, thus bringing into focus on the emotional plane the dramatic atmosphere of alternate struggle and passivity of the Old Testament, where the pain and suffering of life are real and down-to-earth.

Stravinsky wrote the third movement first, which is dated 27 April 1930 and inscribed, according to Craft, `a week after Ascension,' while the first movement was finished on 15 August, `Assumption Day in the Roman Church'. The second movement was completed on 17 July. Stravinsky pasted `a drawing of the Crucifixion' into his sketchbook, and wrote on it the words `Adveniat regnum tuum'; and in May 1930 he gave an interview in which he asserted that `the more one separates oneself from the canons of the Christian Church, the further one distances oneself from the truth,' but also `the overflowing of the framework in art testifies to a lack of internal discipline, which weakens the work.'

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