Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms

Notes by Steve V. Sinclair

This piece was quite interestingly orchestrated, calling for four wind instruments per part (but no clarinets), a string section with only cello and double bass, and a four-part mixed chorus comprised entirely of children. While Stravinsky wrote in the score that “the choir should contain children’s voices,” he also added that they “may be replaced by female voices (soprano and alto).” As a result, most performances of this piece usually include an adult chorus. He also insisted that the piece always be performed in Latin, never in translation.

It was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1930, alongside new works by Sergei Prokofiev, Arthur Honneger, Albert Roussel, and Aaron Copland. Two factors were responsible for the form of this piece; first, Stravinsky had long contemplated composing “a work of considerable scope,” and second, he had recently returned to the Russian Orthodox faith of his youth. Koussevitzky had suggested that he write something “popular,” but Stravinsky was set on his Symphony of Psalms, responding only by choosing Psalm 150 because of its popularity.

For the commission, Stravinsky wrote a clause into his contract, mandating that if Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony didn’t give the premiere of Symphony of Psalms by late November of 1930, an orchestra in Europe could give the premiere instead. So while the piece premiered in Brussels, the Boston Symphony played it for the first time six days later. The critics were reserved but positive about Stravinsky’s new piece. One wrote, “Its originality is too great for it to have instant popular appeal.” Another critic liked only the ending and the beginning, writing “at the outset Stravinsky’s so-called symphony arrested and gripped the listener. There was a semi-barbaric wildness in the opening measures.”