Background Information & Performance Circumstances
- In 1910, Stravinsky became famous for the Firebird.
- Became notorious three years later for The Rite of Spring, which caused a riot because of its often harsh dissonant music, and is now regarded as one of the most important compositions of the 20th century.
- With the onset of the First World War he started writing small scale works, and eventually became a prominent figure in the neo-classical style.
- His reworking of the 18th Century work Pulcinella composed in 1920 is one of the most important example of neo-classical music.
- The 'Symphony of Psalms' was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for its 50th anniversary celebrations.
- The style is not easily classified as it contains Baroque, jazz and traditional Russian orthodox church music features, as well as 20th century music elements.
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Neo-classical and Jazz Styles...
Neo-classical elements include...
- Many tonal characteristics, such as frequent return to a C major chord, e.g. on the word Dominum in bar 7.
- The short imitative section at bar 150 evoking the age of Handel.
Jazz elements include...
- Instrumentation dominated by woodwind, with no upper strings.
- The pizzicato double bass ostinato reminscent of jazz walking bass.
- Frequent syncopation, particularly in faster sections, e.g. from bar 25.
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Russian Orthodox Church Music and 20th Century Sty
Russian Orthodox Church Music elements include...
- The chanting effect at the beginning.
- The emphasis on the choral sound.
- The often slow, static music which evokes ancient church rituals, e.g. from bar 163.
20th Century elements include...
- Frequent dissonance, e.g. opening vocal chords.
- Use of bitonality, e.g. the choral music at the start suggest E flat major, whilst piano and harp chords outline C major.
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Instruments and Voices
- Large symphony orchestra, but with no violins, viola or clarinet.
- 5 trumpets, including high pitched trumpet in D.
- Quintuple woodwing including 5 flutes.
- Double bass plays pizzicato frequently.
- Also two pianos and a harp.
- Voices are arranged in the traditional four voice frouping of Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass.
- Stravinsky originally intended for all voices to be sung by male voices, including boy trebles, but this didn't happen at first performances.
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- Psalm text in Latin is generally syllabic, like the opening Alleluia.
- Stravinsky often does a kind of reverse word painting, e.g. at the mention of trumpets, they are barely audible; the word cymbals is not accompanied by cymbals in the orchestra, but is actually sometimes set to very quiet choral music.
- Words and phrases are often repeated, e.g. laudate sum.
- Sometimes words are broken up by rests in the manner of French hocket, e.g. from bar 65.
- Individual syllables are often accented for the rhythmic effect, rather than for meaning, e.g. bar 104.
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- The opening section includes homophony for the voices, e.g. on the word Dominum.
- At the first 'laudate' words, tenors and basses sing in octaves.
- There is two part vocal texture for sopranos and altos at bar 53.
- The imitative section for four voice parts beginning at bar 150 is sometimes loosely doubled by instruments.
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- This is the third and final movement.
- The movement begins and ends with the same music, the slow moving Alleluia sections, which also occurs briefly in the middle of the movement.
- A faster section dominated by a 6 note repeate motif starts in bar 24, and this idea dominates the movement as a whole.
- Sopranos have a new theme in bar 53 which is based on the 'laudate' theme from bar 4, and this theme is extended and developed until the music reaches a Tutti climax in bar 144, leading nicely into the imitative section in bar 150.
- A slow chanted section which is marked molto meno mosso has all the voices singing together, interrupted by a series of repeates notes sung by the tenor and bass in octaves, before the final alleluia section returns.
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- There are tonal elements, for instance the C major chord in the final three bars.
- The section at bar 150 starts by emphasising tonality of D major, before outlining chords of G major, E minor and A minor.
- Bitonality is another feature, for example in the opening where the voices suggest E flat major, while the piano music is in C major.
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- Non functional - no sense of building towards cadences, 7th chords don't suggest a need to resolve onto another chord.
- Dissonance, for example on the third syllable of 'alleluia' in bar 3, where the G in the bass clashes against the A flats.
- There are also simple consonant chords too, for example the root position C major chord at the end.
- Many harmonic effects are a result of the ostinatos, for example the repeated four note motif, each a fourth apart, which plays towards the end of the movement (from bar 163) and creates a variety of chordal sounds above.
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- One of the most distinctive melodic features is the use of repeated notes, e.g. at the start of the second section with the six repeated notes idea from bar 24.
- Many other passages have smooth flowing conjunct music, such as in the opening Alleluia section.
- Sometimes a melody line comprises of only two notes, for example the section where the altos and sopranos sing together at bar 53.
- The altos have a very narrow range melodically.
- As the music builds towards a climax the sopranos sing part of a whole tone scale, in bars 62-63.
- Sometimes the voice outlines chords, such as the D major chord at bar 150.
- At climax points, intervals become larger, such as the diminished 7th and diminished octave at bar 161 in the soprano part.
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Rhythm and Metre
- Sometimes the music is very static, moving in minims and crotchets at a slow tempo.
- Other times the music is intensely rhythmic, e.g. at the beginning of the second section in bar 24 where there are repeated quavers and 'walking' bass line in crotchets.
- Syncopation is frequent, in the second section, where weak beats and off beats are often emphasised.
- In the second section, as the music builds up there are many triplet quavers in the orchestra music.
- There are occasional changes of time signature.
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- 5 flutes
- 4 oboes
- Cor anglais
- 3 bassoons
- Double bassoon
- 4 horns in F
- Trumpet in D
- 4 trumpets in C
- 2 trombones
- Bass trombone
- Bass drum
- 4 voices
- 2 pianos
- Double bass
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