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.

Stravinsky and Balanchine’s Apollo

For the last couple years, I’ve been living with a huge Stravinsky boxed set, slowly working my way through it. This overlapped with my teaching as one of the pieces that we use in connection with Ovid in the fine arts course is the Stravinsky/Balanchine ballet Apollo, which has become one of my favorite classical pieces. Its “plot” focused on the interaction between Apollo and three muses (of poetry, music, and acting) and it amounts to an interesting reflection on the ambivalent relationship between the arts and the classical Greek heritage.

I encourage you all to watch it if you have a chance.

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Standard piano repertoire: What am I missing?

Yesterday I received an Amazon shipment that included piano books collecting pieces by Debussy and Satie. When these were added to my collection, I felt fairly satisfied with my holdings in terms of “hitting the bases.” Along with those two, I have a book of Beethoven sonatas, a Chopin anthology, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Gershwin’s preludes, the Peanuts theme, and a couple miscellaneous anthologies. What should be the next addition to give me access to a well-rounded selection of piano repertoire? Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues strike me as an attractive option, as do Schubert’s piano sonatas. But what do you think?

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Kafka as muse

The fine arts course I’m teaching at Shimer is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has inspired countless works of music and visual art. It strikes me that if any more recent figure has the potential to serve as such a productive basis for art, it has to be Kafka. The Trial cries out for operatic treatment. A ballet of “Josephine the Singer” would be inspired. Imagine what visual artists could do with Odradek!

What do you think, readers?

Reflections on teaching fine arts

I’m about halfway through teaching Shimer’s Humanities 1: Art and Music. So far, we have done a couple weeks of intro each for visual arts and music, then started a sequence based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has inspired a large number of artworks in various genres and also includes interesting reflections on the fine arts. In the spirit of Ovid’s often contrived transitions, we have also pursued some side roads only obliquely suggested by his text, including an architectural tour of some buildings in the Chicago Loop that vaguely recall the palace of the Sun described in Book II. I had developed a certain level of comfort with the art and music sections, and introducing a new artform at this late date was kind of a curveball — so the tour was an occasion for some reflection on what the class is really trying to do and what I, a non-specialist, can bring to the table for the students.

The challenge of the course is to find a way of talking about art that is neither purely impressionistic and personal nor overly technical and scholarly. Read the rest of this entry »

A night at the opera

Last night, The Girlfriend and I were able to see the Lyric Opera’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, thanks to the generosity of a colleague who found himself with extra tickets. Given that I’m going to be teaching the fine arts course (Humanities 1) in the fall, it was particularly auspicious — and so I thought I’d offer up my amateurish thoughts, in the spirit of my post on Cézanne (which was declared “cute” by a commenter at the time).

It’s a bizarre story — Rigoletto, a hunckbacked jester, keeps his daughter, Gilda, under lock and key because his employer, the Duke, is a womanizer/serial rapist. Read the rest of this entry »

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An amazing classical music resource

I just discovered a vast repository of classical scores that are in the public domain. Here’s a link to a page where you can download the score of a piece that’s been fascinating me for the past couple months: Berg’s Violin Concerto.

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Beyond pretension: On the afterlife of culture

In my recent halting quest to delve more deeply into classical music, it occurs to me that I’ve been pretty trusting of people’s advice. For instance, everyone who has an opinion seems to think that Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is uniquely worthy of attention among his works, and so I got a recording of a performance from Netflix and watched it yesterday afternoon — turns out it’s pretty impressive. Similarly, I’ve eagerly acted on recommendations of books and recordings.

Why am I so trusting? Because basically no one is going to bother even claiming to have an opinion about classical music unless they know what they’re talking about to some degree. It’s totally “voluntary” to know about it — the culture has moved on, so there’s no payoff for pretension. Someone might tell you that The Wire is great just because they feel like they “should” think that; no one’s going to pull a similar move on Missa Solemnis.

In a way, this is a basic Adorno-esque point: previously elite artforms that have lost their accustomed role have a unique potential for “disinterested” uses. I wonder, though, how many other things are like this? Read the rest of this entry »

The manliness of classical music

Teaching at Shimer has reawakened my interest in the fine arts — partly self-defensively, as I may be called upon to teach their introductory course on the fine arts — and classical music in particular. Recently, continuing my haphazard attempt to “bone up,” I looked through the classical music selection on Netflix, and it struck me how stuck classical music is in the Great Man approach to the arts. The marketting approach for the middlebrow audience is fairly consistent: the Great Conductor (Bernstein, Karajan, Berlioz, etc.) realizes the Great Conductor’s Great Symphonic Works in one of the truly Great Performances of the 20th Century. Things are not much better for the “truly” high-brow appreciator of classical music, however, as there is still a definite macho element in appreciating the less accessible works of modern classical music.

There are obviously great female performers in the classical music world, though my impression is that women are still vastly underrepresented in the headlining roles of conductor or solo recital pianist. Yet the obstacles to a woman conductor are seemingly insuperable. Hostility to contemporary work narrows the window for a young composer of any gender, and in classical music in particular, the likelihood of discovering a previously neglected woman who can now get her due is vanishingly small — a woman could certainly write or paint in the privacy of her own home, but to be a classical composer, one needs vastly greater institutional support. Perhaps there are forgotten piano compositions laying around in an attic somewhere, but the odds of finding a “lost” symphony by a woman composer from any of the Heroic Eras of classical music — someone who was composing alongside Mahler et al., for example, in the same way Mary Cassatt was painting alongside the Impressionists — are seemingly at or near zero.

What do you think, readers?

Menacing whimsy: A night at the symphony

Last night, The Girlfriend and I went to the Chicago Symphony for a performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire and Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat. Given that I’ve posted my amateur reflections on a visit to the Art Institute, I might as well tell you about this, too.

To begin with the Schoenberg: it was amazing, even better than the “main event” of the Stravinsky. Read the rest of this entry »

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