Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and the death of God


In my Humanities capstone class, we just finished a unit on music, interweaving key modern classical pieces — Wagner’s “Prelude to Tristan und Isolde,” Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Symphony of Psalms — with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. We concluded with Symphony of Psalms yesterday, and though it’s a piece that may not have the overtowering obviousness of the others, I assigned it because Stravinsky is the composer I know best and because Symphony of Psalms is a major piece of his that I don’t know as well as I’d like to.

As I discussed it with my two sections, it became less rather than more comprehensible to me, particularly the lengthy final movement on Psalm 150. The first two movements, which are paired as a kind of prelude and fugue, seem to fit together smoothly and to display a clear relationship between the text and the movement. The Wikipedia page quotes Stravinsky as claiming, “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.” The quote came up in both sections, and I think it’s pretty plausible with the first two movements — he’s trying to get at what Nietzsche might call the Dionysian impulse that motivated the composition of the text we now have.

In the third movement, however, the emotional content seems strangely out of sync with the text of Psalm 150. It is particularly jarring in the lines about the cymbals, where the music is calm and meditative — “the exact opposite of cymbals,” as I told both classes. There are more upbeat passages, and those are the ones that always stood out to me most in previous listening, more or less in isolation from the remainder of the movement, which often faded into the background. Listening intently and placing them in context, however, the more memorable passages can seem almost shrill or desperate, or at least forced. The slower portions, with their slow and steady repetition of “Laudate Dominum, laudate Eum…,” can seem mechanical, almost evacuated of emotion.

Some have viewed this symphony as a testimony of faith on Stravinsky’s part, and I could perhaps see that for the first two movements — but the last seems almost to evacuate the psalm of meaning. It may not be a coincidence here that the texts of the initial pair of movements are both focused on the subjective experience of the worshipper, while the latter seems to evoke a more purely Dionysian absorption in the worship of God.

Perhaps it’s from this perspective that we can begin to understand the strange ending of the first movement, where the choir belts out the final words of the text, “non ero, I will be no more.” The subject is “no more” in the final movement, which consists of a repeated impersonal command to praise God in various ways — a situation that might initially seem to be just the opposite of that predicted in the text of the first movement, where the subject was afraid of being abandoned by God. Yet if we look more closely at the text, there’s a strange decoupling between the course of the human life and recognition by God: whether God answers or not, the speaker still has a limited sojourn on earth and will eventually return to the nothingness from which he came. The final movement, then, can be read as a final enactment of that decoupling, allowing the worship of God to gradually wind down and run out of steam and allowing the subject to live in the abandonment of God.

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2 Responses to “Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and the death of God”

  1. Brennan Breed Says:

    It seems as though my appreciation for your posts has a precisely inverse relationship to the interest of your readership at large. If only for me, please keep posting your unpopular stuff. It’s gold. You could write this up by itself, or you could compare with a couple of other recent appropriations of Psalm 150, but either way this would make a fantastic article in a biblical studies journal. There are a few recent journals devoted to biblical reception — the journal Biblical Reception, as well as the Journal of the Bible and its Reception, and Relegere. Get this out there.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Thanks for the encouragement.


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