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Symphony of Psalms


Stravinsky had no intention of imitating the conventional nineteenth century symphony, consisting of four distinct movements. In fact, he had already created a special symphonic form for the Symphonies of Wind Instruments whereby a number of periodic episodes were interlocked in a single movement. His intention for the Symphony of Psalms was to create an original symphonic work on a grand scale without conforming to convention.

He decided `to create an organic whole without conforming to the various models adopted by custom, but still retaining the periodic order by which the symphony is distinguished from the suite' (Craft, Chronology of a Friendship).

It is important to note that in titling one of his previous works Symphonies of Wind Instruments, as opposed to, say, Symphonies for Wind Instruments, he is emphasizing the original meaning of the word symphony, which is the bringing together of various instruments to create a sound as a whole, as opposed to the meaning which it took on later, that of a four-movement work with a particular structure. This meaning is also evident in his Symphony in Three Movements.

In fact, Symphony of Psalms is divisible into three movements, but their is no break or abrupt transition between the movements, which follow upon one another. His claim to `it is not a symphony on which I have included Psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing' agrees entirely with his treatment of the voices, which are treated like the orchestra musically. Stravinsky's intention is not to treat the text in a special way.

Gabriel Paichadze, his publisher, wanted an orchestral piece without chorus, `....something popular': but Stravinsky had had the idea of a psalm symphony in his mind for some time, and that was what he insisted on composing (Craft, Dialogues).

His wanted the work to feature extensive contrapuntal development, and in order to increase the means at his disposal he decided to choose `a choral and instrumental ensemble in which the two elements should be on an equal footing, neither of them outweighing the other' (Craft, Chronology). For his text, he selected from the Vulgate verses 13 and 14 of Psalm 38, verses 2, 3 and 4 of Psalm 39, and the whole of Psalm 150. He prefaced the score with the direction that the words should always be sung in Latin.

(Adapted from White, Stravinsky: The composer and his works)

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