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ClassicsOnline Home » STRAVINSKY, I.: Mass / Cantata / Symphony of Psalms (Craft) (Stravinsky, Vol. 6)
This disc of sacred choral music features the masterly Symphony of Psalms, which Stravinsky dedicated “to the glory of God”. The composer himself wrote “It is not a symphony in which I have included Psalms to be sung ... it is the singing of Psalms that I am symphonising.” The Mass (1944-48) dates from the composer’s first decade in America, and is deeply rooted in medieval chant. Cantata (1951-52) consists of nine canons, the centrepiece of which is the Ricercare for tenor, in which Christ foretells his Crucifixion. In Babel (1944), Stravinsky uses text in which the descendants of Noah are frustrated in their attempt to build a tower reaching heaven.
By James McCarthy
Here is Stravinsky far removed from the luscious dazzle of his early ballet scores. This music here is austere, lean and to many of us, incredibly beautiful. The principal work on the disc, the Symphony of Psalms, is one of his greatest works. The rest of the CD is filled out with smaller religious works for choir and occasionally a small instrumental group. The reductive style of Three Russian Sacred Choruses is miraculous and very liturgical. What this composer could achieve with a handful of notes and chords never ceases to astonish.
The remaining works are also important compositions. The most significant amongst the shorter works on the disc is his Cantata, a spare work, with haunting repetitive phrases. The heart of the work, the longest section, is a setting for the tenor of Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day. The Symphony of Psalms was written in 1930. Given the composer’s own strict guidelines the range of musical expression is formidable. The work has always done well on record and this new, vibrant version is amongst the most compelling. I particularly like Craft’s edgy, at times aggressive, approach to the music. Stravinsky’s colleague and friend, the American Robert Craft has spent his lifetime in the service of the composer and his music. More recently he has committed some very good performances to disc. In this latest Naxos release, with excellent forces from New York and London, his high standards are again on show.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Three Russian Sacred Choruses • Mass • Cantata • Babel • Symphony of Psalms
The texts of the three Russian Sacred Choruses, Pater noster, Ave Maria and Credo, are in Slavonic. They are intended to be used in the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church, which forbids the participation of musical instruments. The first piece is a chant, the second a melody in the Phrygian mode, the third a chant in falso bordone;in 1964 Stravinsky recomposed the music of the Credo, parsing the rhythms into barred units. For a 1929 Latin version he first heard the music in Paris in 1934 in a memorial service for Samuel Dushkin's patron, Blair Fairchild.
Stravinsky's Mass is the most perfectly sustained in its musical emotion of the creations from his first decade in America, even though he interrupted work on it for four years between the initial two movements and the final three. Part of the explanation for this could be that unlike all of his other music of the period it is an ancient ritual, sung in Latin, deeply rooted in medieval chant and Byzantine design, and free of any American influence. In other respects, sonority, harmony, and rhythm, completely new.
The division of the instrumental accompaniment into a quintet of oboes and bassoons and a quintet of trumpets and trombones is a master-stroke. The sonorities and volumes offer a wide range of contrasts, including staccato and legato. Like the chorus, the wind instrumentalists must breathe, hence the pre-eminence of phrasing. In the Agnus Dei, the orchestra and chorus are separated, the introduction and interludes are purely instrumental, the choral responses purely a cappella. This device supports the intonation of the choral harmony, especially in the dissonant minor-second combinations, Stravinsky's favourite interval.
The antiphonal concept is developed within the chorus itself in the Gloria and the Sanctus by the division of solo voices, followed by full choral responses. Stravinsky declared somewhere that one of his goals in the Mass setting was to eliminate ornament. He signally failed in this aim in these two movements, but in the solo parts, especially in the Gloria, composed the work's most beautiful music.
The centrepiece of the work, the Credo, is the one non-antiphonal, non-polyphonic movement. Here the text determined the musical scheme. The piece is a chant, falso bordone, and here alone the rôle of the instruments is traditionally accompanimental. It provides pitches, rhythms, brief passages of counterpoint, and brief moments of respiration. Nevertheless, and despite the built-in monotony of the rhythm, Stravinsky manages to endow the music with form. Toward the end the quiet chanting becomes louder and expands upward in range to a climax which is prolonged by a forte fermata. The next bar returns briefly to the beginning, a stunning effect comparable to the return of the first theme in a sonata movement. The Amen which concludes the piece is detached from it by a slower tempo, a return to a cappella polyphony and to pianissimo. Througout the Mass, the word takes priority over the music. Here one feels truly that "In the beginning was the Word."
This architectural guide to a musical masterpiece fails to convey what perhaps should have been proclaimed at the outset, namely that it is powerfully dramatic, and that the three shouts of "Hosanna" in the Sanctus are one of Stravinsky's most thrilling climaxes.
In January 1949, Stravinsky received the five volumes of W. H. Auden's and Norman Pearson's Poets of the English Language. He began to read in it from the latter part of Volume One, Langland to Spenser. His musical ear brought him to a halt at the Elizabethan bridal song "The Maidens Came," which he determined to set to music, and did so on finishing The Rake's Progress in February–March 1951. He was not aware that, of the many versions of the poem, Auden had chosen the one by the Chaucer scholar E. Talbot Donaldson, whose text Stravinsky followed:
The maidens came
When I was in my mothers bower;
I hade all that I wolde.
The baily beryth the bell away;
The lilly, the rose, the rose I lay.
The silver is whit, red is the golde,
The robes they lay in fold.
The baily beryth the bell away;
The lilly, the rose, the rose I lay;
And through the glasse window
Shines the sone.
How should I love and I so young?
The baily beryth the bell away;
The lilly, the rose, the rose I lay.
For to report it were now tedius:
We will therfor now sing no more
Of the games joyus.
Right mighty and famus
Elizabeth, our queen princis,
Prepotent and eke victorius,
Virtuos and bening,
Lett us pray all
To Christ Eternall,
Which is the hevenly King,
After ther liff grant them
A place eternally to sing. Amen.
The speaker is presumably a young bride awaiting her bridegroom, but the identity of the bailey and why he bears the bell away is not known. The poem is an excerpt from a much longer one, printed in full only in 1901 in Volume 107 of the Archiv für neuere Sprechen und Literaturen, by the scholar Bernhard Fehr of Southgate-on-Sea. The date of the poem is assumed to be soon after Elizabeth's victory over the Armada (1588). More recent scholarship associates the poem with May Day festivities in and around Durham Castle; the "glasse window" probably refers to the East Window of Durham Cathedral. A musical setting from the period reveals that the first line is really the title, and that the last line of the first stanza should be a repetition of the penultimate line. An earlier, ribald version of a fragment of the poem is found in John Taverner's XX Songes (1530). Here the refrain "the baily beryth the bell away" has been interpreted as "We maidens beareth the bell," i.e., we take the prize. The bell probably refers to the swelling of pregnancy.
At the end of January 1952, after a six-month hiatus from creative work, Stravinsky began to compose Ricercar II, "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day" (taken from Sandy's Christmas Carols, London 1839). Webern's Orchestra Variations, heard in Baden-Baden in October 1951, made a profound impression on Stravinsky, but the Cantata employs neither "serialism" nor "atonality," and could not have been written if these developments had not occurred.
The first notation for the cantus cancrizans of Ricercar II is dated 8 February 1952, and the movement was completed two weeks later on 22 February. The duet "Westron Wind," beginning with the rhythmic figure now appearing at the end, was composed before the Ricercar, in the week beginning 2 February, but was not fully scored until 22 March. Work was interrupted by another European concert tour in late April–June, after which the Lyke-Wake Dirge was written in California in July. Stravinsky's first plan was to compose a prelude, interludes, and a postlude for instruments, but, impatient to begin work on the Septet, he decided instead on the less time-consuming repeated choruses.
One of Stravinsky's most moving creations, the Cantata followed naturally from The Rake's Progress, and was in fact composed (the duet and the tenor Ricercar) with the voices of Jennie Tourel and Hugues Cuénod in mind, respectively Baba the Turk and Sellem in the Venice production of the opera. (Stravinsky may even have thought of the line, "The Devil bade me make stones my bread," in Ricercar II, as a link to the bread machine in the opera.)
Most of "The maidens came …" is accompanied by the woodwind quartet, without the cello, which is silent under the pairs of winds at the words "how should I love?" (note the oboe high-"C") as it is again near the end of the prayer that concludes this lovely lyric. In the dramatic recitative, "right mighty and famus Elizabeth"—which could only refer to the triumph over the Spanish Armada—the instruments provide chordal punctuation. "The maidens came …" was originally scored for flutes and cello alone, but to enrich the polyphony and relieve the timbres, Stravinsky added oboes and an English horn. The seven short sections of the song switch back and forth between the tonalities of C and B flat and their related minors, until the last phrase, when, at the words "after life," the tonal centre lifts stunningly to the remote key of B.
The Cantata's centrepiece and most innovative movement is the tenor Ricercar, in which Christ foretells His Crucifixion on the morrow, calling it "my dancing day." The music contains only five different pitches, and is exposed in a one-bar introduction in which the cello doubles the first flute in a high register, a sonority suggesting Renaissance instruments, while the second flute doubles the melody an octave lower. The tenor repeats the subject with changes in rhythm, then sings it in retrograde order (more rhythmic changes), inverted order, and retrograde inverted order, in which a sixth pitch emerges. The oboes and cello play a drone accompaniment in the cantus cancrizans, and provide the counterpoint in the nine canons that comprise the body of the piece.
The three cantus cancrizans are in one tempo, the ritornelli and canons in another. The music of the first two ritornelli is an abbreviated form of the ritornelli between the canons, which are the same throughout, as are the odd-numbered canons, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9. The even-numbered ones, in contrasting tonalities and, in canons 4 and 6, new rhythms, expose dramatic musical images of the text. The beginnings of canons 6 and 8 return to the original tonality and melodic form of the cantus cancrizans. Canons 2 and 4 also derive from the cantus cancrizans. Canon 4, in a remote tonality, is marked "in motu contrario" —in the manuscript sketch Stravinsky drew isobar lines showing the relationships. The intervals are inverted (the third becoming a sixth, etc.), and jagged dotted rhythms and harsh dissonances are introduced programmatically. Canon 6 employs still wider leaps and more agitated figurations in the cello; it begins in C and ends in D sharp major. The most affecting harmonic event in the piece occurs near the end of Canon 8 when, at the words "And rose again on the third day," the tonal centre rises from C to C sharp major.
Ricercar II marks a new departure in Stravinsky's music and, together with the Septet, the Shakespeare Songs, and the In Memoriam Dylan Thomas that followed, he entered new territory.
Babel [Heb: = confused] in the Bible is the place where Noah's descendants (who spoke only one language) tried to build a tower reaching up to heaven to make a name for themselves. For this presumption, the speech of the builders was confused, thus ending the project. The story was perhaps originally an etiological tale explaining the diversity of languages and cultures, but owing to Israel's experience of exile, it is now interpreted as a polemic against the presumption of Babylon, which is Babel in Hebrew.
Stravinsky composed his cantata, Babel, on words taken from the first Book of Moses, chapter 11, in April 1944. A music publisher, Nathaniel Shilkret, had commissioned a number of composers to contribute to a suite based on early chapters in Genesis. Schoenberg wrote the first piece, called Prelude, and Stravinsky the last, on the subject of the building and destruction of the tower of Babel. The story is both narrated, by David Wilson-Johnson in this recording, and sung by a male chorus. The length of the piece determined its form, which begins with a passacaglia in which a fugue serves as one of the variations. The use of oboe and harp in the orchestra creates an oriental atmosphere and the faster tempo and rhythmic style of the mid-section is an effectively programmatic picture of the scattering abroad of the people for their "presumption."
Pasted to the flyleaf of the lined notebook containing the sketches for the Symphony of Psalms is a newspaper cut-out picture of Christ on the Cross with spokes of light emanating from His head and a board above it inscribed in Latin letters, "IMRI," which means "Judahite" in the Hebrew Bible; the base of the Cross bears the caption "Adveniat Regnum Tuum". The picture disturbs us, partly because it is devoid of artistic merit, a specimen of Bondieuserie, and partly because the Hebrew Psalms are not the most appropriate place for it.
The first notation for the Symphony, the triplet upbeat figure followed by the dotted half-note (minim) and quarter-note (crotchet) (bar 4 of ), occurs near the beginning of the orchestral allegro in the last movement; the sketch is harmonized and scored for trumpets and horns, as in the final score. The first dated entries, "24-XII-1929, 6-I-1930" (in the Julian calendar, which Stravinsky used until his American period), were intended for the first movement. Among the ten notations subsumed under these dates are the ostinato figure of minor thirds connected by a major third, used in the final score a minor-third higher, and the octave leap upward followed by a whole-step down used in the choral chant at , but here assigned to horns. Three more pages of sketches for the same Psalm follow, dated 4 March, none of them resembling the final form of the music. (During January and February Stravinsky had been concertizing in Berlin, Leipzig, Vienna, Bucharest, Budapest, and Prague.)
On 10 March, he composed the opening three bars of the last movement, first in abbreviated form and without the G in the bass against the A flat for the third syllable of "Alleluia", then on seven staves, with the G and as we know the setting today. He wrote the Vulgate text on the facing page, adding a French translation in small letters under the words "secundum multitudinem magnitudinis"—"selon la grandeur de son magnificence"— for no reason that I can discover except to confound future scholars, since it is impossible that he did not know the meaning of the Latin. The handwriting here, exuberantly larger than that for the text of Psalm 39, suggests that composing the "Alleluia" had been an epiphanic experience for him. He drafted the music from here to the end of the movement in the order we know, with a minimum of correcting and rewriting and none at all in the section for full chorus before and through the second "Alleluia". After completing the movement, 27 April, he wrote it out in condensed score form.
Resuming the composition with the first movement on 10 May, Stravinsky wrote the first choral entrance over the minor-thirds accompaniment figure, but he interrupted his work for concerts in Amsterdam. In June he abandoned the first movement once again and began the second, writing out the fugue subject a half-step lower than we know it (starting on B rather than C), an infrequent instance of this in his sketches, in which the pitch is most often the same as in the final score. On 21 June he discovered the subject of the choral fugue, combined it with the instrumental subject in the bass, and composed from there in sequence to the end, which is dated 17 July. After writing the condensed score, he accompanied Mme Sudeykina on a holiday to Avignon, Vaucluse, and Marseilles.
The composition of Psalm 39 was begun in earnest on 29 July with the writing of a Russian translation under every word of the text, conceivably in this instance because he was seeking further perspectives of meaning in his mother tongue. On completing the movement, he drew a Russian-style cross in the manuscript as an envoi and dated it, in French, "15 August, The Feast of the Assumption in the Roman Church". Having composed the piece in Nice and under the same roof as his wife, Catherine, he invited her to attend the première, in Brussels, on 13 December 1930. On 14 December, after her departure, Mme Sudeykina arrived and Stravinsky, resuming the other side of his divided life, went with her to Amsterdam for more concerts.
© Robert Craft 2006
Sung texts and translations are available at http://www.naxos.com/libretti/symphonyofpsalms.htm
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