Every summer, The Religion Guy luxuriates in a visit to western Massachusetts, known for outstanding theater troupes, art museums, a dance center, lectures and other cultural offerings all surrounding the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s incomparable Tanglewood music festival. (Disclosure: The Guy’s daughter is a BSO player.)
One BSO concert this July offered two George Gershwin piano features (not the over-programmed “Rhapsody in Blue”) and then “Petrushka” by Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), a tuneful and witty ballet score about the life and loves of a classic Russian puppet. That got The Guy thinking about Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet in which musical art exploded into modernity, “The Rite of Spring: Pictures from Pagan Russia” (originally titled “The Great Sacrifice”).
His theme was the worship of pre-Christian Scythians adoring the earth, evoking their ancestors and then choosing a young maiden who danced herself to death as a sacrifice to the gods for a good harvest. The music is creepy, orgiastic, harmonically dissonant and rhythmically jagged. The premiere in Paris provoked a scandalous near-riot as astonished attendees audibly jeered, argued and tussled while the music proceeded.
That in turn brought to this listener’s mind the radical religious contrast between the “Rite” and another Stravinsky work The Guy heard at the Tanglewood debut of Andris Nelsons, who was later appointed Boston’s music director. Back in 1930 the orchestra marked its 50th anniversary by commissioning new works by the likes of Copland, Hanson, Hindemith, Honegger, Prokofiev and Respighi, and wanted Stravinsky to produce a conventional symphony.
Instead, he came up with a unique piece of sacred music, “Symphony of Psalms” for chorus and an orchestra minus violins and violas. This ranks as the 20th century’s finest composition on a biblical theme (any competitors?) and Time magazine proclaimed it one of the century’s three greatest classical compositions, alongside Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Ravel’s string quartet.
Stravinsky chose choral texts from the Latin Bible. Psalm 38:13-14 is a prayer of sorrow and separation from God. In Psalm 39:2-4, God hears and rescues the penitent. The climax is the sublime Psalm 150 (“O praise God in his holiness. Praise him in the firmament of his power. Praise him in his noble acts. Praise him according to his excellent greatness”) with trumpet, lute, harp, strings, pipe and cymbals all joining in worship.
In the journalist’s mind an unpegged feature story is now brewing, or else a good walkup whenever area musicians are scheduled to perform the “Psalms” or one of Stravinsky’s other nine works on biblical themes.
The big question: But was he merely knocking out pieces to earn commission money, or expressing something deeply personal?
At this point, the journalist turns to the definitive two-volume Stravinsky biography by Stephen Walsh of Cardiff University. There we discover that after his phenomenal success with a fervently pagan ballet and secular works, Stravinsky in 1926 suddenly wrote the Lord’s Prayer as a choir number in Slavonic, the liturgical language of his boyhood Russian Orthodox Church.
That same year, Stravinsky wrote this to his dance collaborator and close friend Sergei Diaghilev during Orthodox Holy Week: “I have not observed the fast for 20 years, and it is out of extreme mental and spiritual need that I do so now — in a few days I shall go to confession, and before confession I shall ask forgiveness of everyone I can.”
“Stravinsky never stopped being a devout, somewhat credulous believer” after this “extreme” crisis, Walsh writes. He and others speculate that this involved crushing guilt over his flagrant adultery with a mistress.
In subsequent years, Stravinsky was an irregular attender of Orthodox worship though more frequently after age 60. He also conversed with Catholic thinkers in France, became a frequent reader of devotional literature and was an avid collector of icons. For one period he even had an Orthodox priest living with his household. And, Walsh reports, he believed his musical imagination was a gift from God.
All this is a fascinating sidelight on the 20th century’s pre-eminent composer. Religion story angles can emerge most any time and any place.