Symphonies of Psalms

Saturday, February 9, 2019 • 7:30 p.m.
First Free Methodist Church (3200 3rd Ave W)

Due to the impending weather event expected this weekend, this concert has been cancelled. If you have already purchased tickets, we will be in touch soon regarding ways to exchange or refund your tickets.

Orchestra Seattle
Seattle Chamber Singers
William White, conductor


Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672)
Alleluja! Lobet dem Herren!, SWV 38

Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179)
Karitas habundat

Caroline Shaw (*1982)
and the swallow

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
Symphony of Psalms

— intermission —

Antonín Dvořák (1841 –1904)
Žalm 149, Op. 79

Lili Boulanger (1893–1918)
Psaume CXXIX

William C. White (*1983)
Psalm 46, Op. 14

About the Concert

David Composing the Psalms

Spanning nine centuries, this program offers a collection of the astonishing variety of responses that the Psalms of David have inspired in composers over the years. We begin with music of Heinrich Schütz, the greatest of Bach’s German predecessors, in his energetic rendition of the 150th psalm. We are then catapulted to the present day with music of Caroline Shaw, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music. The first half of the program is anchored by Igor Stravinsky’s deeply spiritual Symphony of Psalms, a work unique not only for its transcendent beauty but also for its unusual sonority: this masterpiece for chorus and orchestra employs no clarinets, violins or violas.

Antonín Dvořák’s thrilling setting of the 149th psalm, a favorite of choral societies since its composition in 1879, follows intermission. Lili Boulanger’s restless Psalm 129 features a style that would be imitated in many film noir scores of the mid-20th century. Our concert concludes with music by OSSCS music director William White, a jubilant 2011 setting of Psalm 46, newly orchestrated for this performance.

Program Notes

Caroline Shaw
and the swallow

Caroline Adelaide Shaw was born August 1, 1982, in Greenville, North Carolina. She composed this work for the Netherlands Chamber Choir, who sang the first performance at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City on November 11, 2017.

Caroline Shaw

Caroline Shaw is a triple-threat musician: a violinist who performs with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, a singer with the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, and the youngest composer ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music (for her 2009–2012 work Partita for 8 Voices) — not to mention recent collaborations with rapper Kanye West. Last week, the Seattle Symphony and soloist Jonathan Biss premiered her newest work, a piano concerto.

Shaw composed and the swallow, an eight-part a cappella setting of Psalm 84, for “The Psalms Experience,” a 12-concert presentation of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival featuring performances of all 150 biblical psalms. “I really identified with [Psalm 84] because it has to do with finding a home and finding a refuge and a place and sort of celebrating this sense of safety,” Shaw told NPR, revealing that she was was thinking of Syria as she composed the work. “There’s a yearning for a home that feels very relevant today. The second verse is: ‘The sparrow found a house and the swallow her nest, where she may place her young,’ which is just a beautiful image of a bird trying to keep her children safe — people trying to keep their family safe.”

Igor Stravinsky
Symphony of Psalms

Stravinsky was born at Oranienbaum, Russia, on June 17, 1882, and died in New York on April 6, 1971. He composed his Symphony of Psalms at Nice and Charavines between January and August 15, 1930, on a commission from the Boston Symphony and its music director, Serge Koussevitzky, on the occasion of the orchestra’s 50th anniversary. Illness caused the planned premiere to be postponed, with the result that Ernest Ansermet conducted the Société Philharmonique de Bruxelles in the first performance on December 13, 1930; Koussevitzky and the BSO gave the American premiere six days later. In addition to chorus, the work employs 4 flutes, piccolo, 4 oboes, English horn, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, piano, harp, timpani, bass drum, cellos and basses.

In his 1963 book Dialogues and a Diary, co-authored with Robert Craft, Stravinsky wrote at length about Symphony of Psalms (the “publisher” to whom Stravinsky refers was Koussevitzky):

Igor Stravinsky circa 1930

“The commissioning of the Symphony of Psalms began with the publisher’s routine suggestion that I write something popular. I took the word, not in the publisher’s meaning of ‘adapting to the understanding of the people,’ but in the sense of ‘something universally admired,’ and I even chose Psalm 150 in part for its popularity, though another and equally compelling reason was my eagerness to counter the many composers who had abused these magisterial verses as pegs for their own lyrico-sentimental ‘feelings.’ The psalms are poems of exaltation, but also of anger and judgment, and even of curses. Although I regarded Psalm 150 as a song to be danced, as David danced before the Ark, I knew that I would have to treat it in an imperative way. My publisher had requested an orchestral piece without chorus, but I had had the psalm symphony idea in mind for some time, and that is what I insisted on composing.

“I began with Psalm 150. … After finishing the fast-tempo sections of [that] psalm, I went back to compose the first and second movements. The ‘Alleluia’ and the slow music at the beginning of Psalm 150, which is an answer to the question in Psalm 39 [Stravinsky used the numbering of the Vulgate bible], were written last.

“I was much concerned, in setting the psalm verses, with problems of tempo. To me, the relation of tempo and meaning is a primary question of musical order, and until I am certain that I have found the right tempo, I cannot compose. Superficially, the texts suggested a variety of speeds, but this variety was without shape. At first, and until I understood that God must not be praised in fast, forte music, no matter how often the text specifies ‘loud,’ I thought of the final hymn in a too-rapid pulsation. This is the manner question again, of course. Can one say the same thing in several ways? I cannot, in any case, and to me the only possible way could not be more clearly indicated among all the choices if it were painted blue. I also cannot say whether a succession of choices results in a “style,” but my own description of style is tact-in-action, and I prefer to talk about the action of a musical sentence than to talk about its style.

“The first movement, ‘Hear my prayer, O Lord,’ was composed in a state of religious and musical ebullience. The sequences of two minor thirds joined by a major third, the root idea of the whole work, were derived from the trumpet-harp motive at the beginning of the allegro in Psalm 150.

“The ‘Waiting for the Lord’ psalm makes the most overt use of musical symbolism in any of my music before The Flood. An upside-down pyramid of fugues, it begins with a purely instrumental fugue of limited compass and employs only solo instruments. The restriction to treble range was the novelty of this initial fugue, but the limitation to flutes and oboes proved its most difficult compositional problem. The subject was developed from the sequence of thirds used as an ostinato in the first movement. The next and higher stage of the upside-down pyramid is the human fugue, which does not begin without instrumental help for the reason that I modified the structure as I composed and decided to overlap instruments and voices to give the material more development, but the human choir is heard a cappella after that. The human fugue also represents a higher level in the architectural symbolism by the fact that it expands into the bass register. The third stage, the upside-down foundation, unites the two fugues.

“Though I chose Psalm 150 first, and though my first musical idea was the already quoted rhythmic figure in that movement, I could not compose the beginning of it until I had written the second movement. Psalm 39 is a prayer that a new canticle may be put into our mouths. The ‘Alleluia’ is that canticle. … The rest of the slow-tempo introduction, the ‘Laudate Dominum,’ was originally composed to the words of the Gospodi pomiluy. This section is a prayer to the Russian image of the infant Christ with orb and scepter. I decided to end the work with this music, too, as an apotheosis of the sort that had become a pattern in my music since the epithalamium at the end of Les noces. The allegro in Psalm 150 was inspired by a vision of Elijah’s chariot climbing the heavens; never before had I written anything quite so literal as the triplets for horns and piano to suggest the horses and chariot. The final hymn of praise must be thought of as issuing from the skies, and agitation is followed by ‘the calm of praise,’ but such statements embarrass me. What I can say is that in setting the words of this final hymn, I cared above all for the sounds of the syllables, and I have indulged my besetting pleasure of regulating prosody in my own way. … One hopes to worship God with a little art if one has any, and if one hasn’t, and cannot recognize it in others, then one can at least burn a little incense.”

William C. White
Psalm 46

White was born August 16, 1983, in Bethesda, Maryland. He composed this work in 2011 and conducted the premiere in Hinsdale, Illinois, on May XX, 2011. The revised version, completed in 2018 and heard for the first time this evening, calls for SATB chorus, pairs of woodwinds, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, celesta and strings.

William C. White

About Psalm 46 the composer says: “I wrote this piece on a commission from the Union Church of Hinsdale, Illinois, to celebrate the retirement of their longtime director of music (and my one-time boss), Michael Surratt. Mike is a great guy and a really great organist, so I wanted to give him something to bite into. The church suggested I set the text of Psalm 46 (one of Mike’s favorites) and I seized the opportunity to use a translation that has fascinated me for years, namely Young’s Literal Translation of 1862. What makes this version of the bible so truly unique is that Mr. Young, a self-educated Scotsman, translated from the Ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek without rendering said languages grammatically into modern English. Strangely, though, he still uses the vocabularic style and tense endings of the King James Version, lending the text a very distinct flavor of the ancient and the modern. I made just a few tiny adjustments to this text, mainly for musical purposes, and also because of Mike’s aversion to the use of the masculine pronoun for God.

“Astute listeners may recognize two hymn tunes quoted extensively (and often hidden) in the piece: ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’ and ‘O God Our Help in Ages Past’ — both are paraphrases of the Psalm 46 text and favorites of Mike’s.”

Originally for brass quintet, timpani, handbell choir and organ, the accompaniment has been rescored for full orchestra by the composer expressly for this evening’s performance.