STRAVINSKY: Mass / Cantata / Symphony of Psalms

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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
Disc: 1
Symphony of Psalms
1 Otche nash (Pater noster)
2 Ave Maria
3 Credo
4 Kyrie
5 Gloria
6 Credo
7 Sanctus
8 Agnus Dei
9 A Lyke-Wake Dirge (Versus I; Prelude)
10 Ricercar I: The Maidens Came
11 A Lyke-Wake Dirge (Versus II; 1st Interlude)
12 Ricercar II: Tomorrow Shall Be
13 A Lyke-Wake Dirge (Versus III; 2nd Interlude)
14 Westron Wind
15 A Lyke-Wake Dirge (Versus IV; Postlude)
16 Babel
17 I. Psalm 38, verses 13 and 14
18 II. Psalm 39, verses 1 to 5
19 III. Psalm 150 (entire)
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