In celebration of Stravinsky’s birthday today, I’d like to share my favorite recordings and performances of one of his most profound works, his Symphony of Psalms.
Composed in 1930, this “choral symphony” was commissioned by the conductor Serge Koussevitzky to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The title refers to the fact that the words sung by the choir are entirely from Psalm text from the Bible. These texts were of paramount importance to Stravinsky. He writes, “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.”
Oddly, the first performance was not given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but by the Société Philharmonique de Bruxelles on December 13, 1930, conducted by Ernest Ansermet. Six days later Koussevitzky conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the U.S. premiere, with the Cecilia Society chorus who had been trained by a young Arthur Fiedler.
The very first recording was made in Paris with Stravinsky conducting the Orchestre de Concerts Walther Staram and the Alexis Vlassof Chorus, and recorded at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, in February 1931. In many ways, it has yet to be surpassed.