Symphony of Psalms

The Symphony of Psalms is a three-movement choral symphony and was composed by Igor Stravinsky in 1930 during his neoclassical period. The work was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The symphony derives its name from the use of Psalm texts in the choral parts.

According to Stravinsky, the commission for the work came about from "a routine suggestion" from Koussevitzky, who was also Stravinsky's publisher, that he write something "popular" for orchestra without chorus. Stravinsky, however, insisted on the psalm-symphony idea, which he had had in mind for some time. The choice of Psalm 150, however, was in part because of the popularity of that text. The symphony was written in Nice and Echarvines, which was Stravinsky's summer home in those years.[1] The three movements are performed without a break, and the texts sung by the chorus are drawn from the Vulgate versions in Latin. Unlike many pieces composed for chorus and orchestra, Stravinsky said that “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.”[2]

Although the piece was written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the world premiere was actually given in Brussels by the Société Philharmonique de Bruxelles on December 13, 1930, under the direction of Ernest Ansermet. The American premiere of the piece was given soon afterwards by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with the chorus of the Cecilia Society (trained by Arthur Fiedler) on December 19, 1930.[3] The first recording was made by Stravinsky himself with the Orchestre des Concerts Straram and the Alexis Vlassay Choir at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on February 17 and 18, 1931.[4] "The choir, throaty, full-blooded, darkly, inwardly passionate, sing with liturgical conviction and intensity in a memorable performance."[5]


The work is scored for 5 flutes (5th doubling piccolo), 4 oboes, cor anglais, 3 bassoons, and contrabassoon; 4 horns in F, piccolo trumpet, 4 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, and tuba; timpani, bass drum, 2 pianos, and harp; cellos and contrabasses; and a four-part chorus (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). In the score preface, Stravinsky stated a preference for children's voices for the upper two choral parts.

Notably, the score omits clarinets, violins, and violas.

General analysis

Like many of Stravinsky's other works, including Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, the Symphony of Psalms occasionally employs the octatonic scale (which alternates whole steps and half steps), the longest stretch being eleven bars between rehearsal numbers 4 and 6 in the first movement.[6] Stravinsky stated that the root of the entire symphony is "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".[7]

Stravinsky portrays the religious nature of the text through his compositional techniques. He wrote substantial portions of the piece in fugal counterpoint, which was used widely in the church in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. He also uses the large chorus to create a ritual atmosphere like that of the Church.

First movement

Psalms chord

The first movement of the Symphony of Psalms is marked "Tempo ♩= 92” and uses the text from Psalm 38, verses 13 and 14. This movement was finished on August 15, 1930, which is Assumption Day in the Catholic Church and is written as a prelude to the second movement, a double fugue.

The movement is composed of flowing ostinato sections punctuated with E-minor block chords, in a voicing known as the "Psalms chord", which stop the constant motion. The first ostinato section in measure 2, which is played in the oboe and bassoon, could be six notes from the octatonic scale starting C-D-E-F, etc., but incomplete sets such as this illustrate the controversial nature of the extent of its use.[8] Stravinsky himself regarded this ostinato as "the root idea of the whole symphony", a four-note set consisting of a sequence of "two minor thirds joined by a major third", and stated that it initiated in the trumpet-harp motive at the beginning of the allegro section of the third movement, which was composed first.[9]

 \relative c'' { \clef treble \time 3/4 \tempo "Tempo" 4 = 92 bes16\p( d f aes g f d b aes' g d b | \time 2/4 bes d f aes g f d b) }

If a liturgical character is produced by the use of modal scales even before the chorus's entrance (in measures 12–13, the piano plays an F-dorian scale and in measures 15–16, the piano plays in the E-phrygian mode), it was not a conscious decision:

I was not aware of "Phrygian modes," "Gregorian chants," "Byzantinisms," or anything else of the sort, while composing this music, though, of course, the "influences" said to be denoted by such script-writers' baggage-stickers may very well have been operative.[7]

The presence of the chorus is used to create a church-like atmosphere in this piece as well as to appropriately set the Psalm. It enters with a minor 2nd motif, which is used both to emphasize the C/D octatonic scale and set the pleading text. The minor second motif in the chorus is continued throughout the movement. The use of the octatonic scale and the church modes pervade the sound of the movement, contributing to both the ritual feel of the piece and the plaintive setting of the text.

 \relative c' { \clef treble \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 e4(\mf f) f2 | e2~ e4~ e8 r } \addlyrics { E- xau- di }

There are various ways of analyzing the tonal structure of the first movement. The most popular analysis is to view the movement in E minor, pronounced at the opening chord.[10] The following arpeggios on B7 and G7 act as dominants to the other tonal centers in the next two movements, E and C respectively. However, the strong presence of G in the movement also points to another tonal center. The opening chord is orchestrated in such a way so that the third of E minor, G, is emphasized. Moreover, the movement concludes with a loud G major chord, which becomes the dominant to C minor at the start of the second movement.[11]

Text (Psalm 38 verses 13 and 14 [KJV = Psalm 39 verses 12 and 13])

Exaudi orationem meam, Domine, et deprecationem meam. Auribus percipe lacrimas meas. Ne sileas.
Quoniam advena ego sum apud te et peregrinus, sicut omnes patres mei.
Remitte mihi, ut refrigerer prius quam abeam et amplius non ero.
English Translation
Hear my prayer, O Lord, and with Thine ears consider my calling: hold not Thy peace at my tears.
For I am a stranger with Thee: and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
O spare me a little that I may recover my strength: before I go hence and be no more.

Second movement

The second movement is a double fugue in C minor,[12] and uses as text Psalm 40, verses 2, 3, and 4. The first fugue theme is based on the same four-note cell used in the first movement,[13] and begins in the oboe in measure one.

 \relative c'' { \clef treble \key c \minor \time 4/8 \tempo "Tempo" 8 = 60 c8--[\mf \breathe ees--] \breathe b'--[ \breathe d,--~] | d16[ \breathe c(-- ees-.) b'->~] b[ d,( c') ees,(] | b'8) d,16-- r c( ees b') d,( | c') des,( a') c,( bes'8) b,16-- r | r g' bes,( aes') a,( f') aes,( fis') }

The first entrance of the second theme starts in measure 29 in the soprano, followed by an entrance in the alto in measure 33 a fourth down.

 \relative c'' { \clef treble \key c \minor \time 4/8 \tempo 8 = 60 \autoBeamOff ees->\mf bes->~ | bes8 bes bes a | aes!4~ aes16[ bes] ces8 | bes ges' f4~ | f8 } \addlyrics { Ex- pec- tans ex- pec- ta- vi DO- MI- NUM, }

The third and fourth entrances are in the tenor in measure 39 and bass in measure 43. Meanwhile, the first fugue theme can be heard in the bass instruments at the entrance of the soprano at measure 29. A stretto is heard in measure 52 based on the second fugal theme.

At measure 71, the voices sing in homophony on the text "He hath put a new song in my mouth". In the accompaniment, a variation of the first fugue theme is played in stretto. Finally, unison is heard in the voices in measure 84 on the text "and shall put their trust in the Lord." This completes the gradual clarification of texture from counterpoint to unison.

The piece concludes with E as the tonal center.[14] Some analyses interpret the E as being part of an inverted C minor chord which creates a suitable transition into the third movement in C.[15]

Text (Psalm 39. verses 2, 3, and 4 [KJV = Psalm 40, verses 1,2 and 3])

Expectans expectavi Dominum, et intendit mihi.
Et exaudivit preces meas; et eduxit me de lacu miseriae, et de luto fæcis.
Et statuit super petram pedes meos: et direxit gressus meos.
Et immisit in os meum canticum novum, carmen Deo nostro.
Videbunt multi, videbunt et timebunt: et sperabunt in Domino.
English Translation [not the KJ V]
I waited patiently for the Lord: and He inclined unto me, and heard my calling.
He brought me also out of the horrible pit, out of the mire and clay.
and set my feet upon the rock, and ordered my goings.
And He hath put a new song in my mouth: even a thanksgiving unto our God.
Many shall see it and fear: and shall put their trust in the Lord.

Third movement

The third movement of the Symphony of Psalms alternates "Tempo ♩= 48" and "Tempo ♩= 80", and uses nearly the complete text of Psalm 150. Stravinsky wrote:

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.[16]
 \relative c' { \clef treble \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \tempo "Tempo" 2 = 80 \partial 4*2 \times 2/3 { r8 ees\f g } bes4~ | \times 2/3 { bes4 g8 } ees'4~ \times 2/3 { ees4 bes8 } g4~ | \times 2/3 { g8 ees g } \times 2/3 { c->( bes-.) r } aes4~ \times 2/3 { aes8 g ges } | f4~ \times 2/3 { f8 e ees } \times 2/3 { d des c } \times 2/3 { b r r } }

The final hymn of praise must be thought of as issuing from the skies; agitation is followed by the calm of praise. In setting the words of this final hymn I cared only for the sounds of the syllables and I have indulged to the limit my besetting pleasure of regulating prosody in my own way.[17]

The second part of the slow opening introduction, setting the word "Laudate Dominum", was originally composed to the Old Slavonic words "Gospodi Pomiluy", and Stravinsky regarded this as his personal prayer to the Russian Ecumenical image of the Infant Christ with the scepter and the Globe.[18]

 \relative c { \clef bass \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \tempo "Tempo" 4 = 48 d4 ees2 bes4 } \addlyrics { Lau- da- te, }

Text (Psalm 150)

Laudate Dominum in sanctis Ejus.
Laudate Eum in firmamento virtutis Ejus. Laudate Dominum.
Laudate Eum in virtutibus Ejus. Laudate Dominum in virtutibus Ejus.
Laudate Eum secundum multitudinem magnitudinis Ejus. Laudate Dominum in sanctis Ejus..
Laudate Eum in sono tubae.
Laudate Eum. Alleluia. Laudate Dominum. Laudate Eum.
Laudate Eum in timpano et choro,
Laudate Eum in cordis et organo; Laudate Dominum.
Laudate Eum in cymbalis benesonantibus,
Laudate Eum in cymbalis jubilationibus. Laudate Dominum.
Laudate Eum, omnis spiritus laudet Dominum, omnis spiritus laudet Eum.
Alleluia. Laudate, laudate, laudate Dominum.
English Translation (King James Version)
Praise God in His sanctuary:
Praise Him in the firmament of His power.
Praise Him for His mighty acts:
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness.
Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet:
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance.
Praise Him with stringed instruments and organs.
Praise Him upon the high sounding cymbals,
Praise Him upon the loud cymbals.
Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.

Serge Prokofiev's use of text in Alexander Nevsky

When writing music for Sergei Eisenstein's film Alexander Nevsky, Prokofiev needed a Latin text to characterise the invading Teutonic knights. The text appears in Prokofiev's cantata, based on the film score, for the movements "The Crusaders in Pskov" and "The Battle on the Ice", and appears to have lifted words from the Symphony of Psalms—"peregrinus" from Stravinsky's first movement, "expectavi", and "pedes meos" from the second, and "in cymbalis" from the third.[19]


  1. Stravinsky and Craft 1962, 15.
  2. White 1966, 321.
  3. Steinberg 2005, 265.
  4. Hill and Simeone 2005, 30.
  5. Composers in Person: Stravinsky, EMI Classics D 202405, 1993.
  6. Berger 1963, 40.
  7. 1 2 Stravinsky and Craft 1962, 16.
  8. Tymoczko 2002, 90–91.
  9. Stravinsky and Craft 1962, 16.
  10. Cole 1980, 4.
  11. Kang 2007, 9.
  12. Berger 1963, 32.
  13. Berger 1963, 32.
  14. Steinberg 2005, 268.
  15. Kang 2007, 21.
  16. Stravinsky and Craft 1963, 78.
  17. Stravinsky and Craft 1962, 17
  18. Stravinsky and Craft 1962, 17.
  19. Kerr 1994. Text also available at Alexander Nevsky and the Symphony of Psalms at the Wayback Machine (archived January 9, 2009)


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