The Sacred Music of Stravinsky

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“Music praises God. Music is well or better able to praise him than the building of the church in all its decoration; it is the church’s greatest ornament.”  ∼ Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Igor Stravinsky is everyone’s idea of a “modern composer.” The riot that accompanied the premiere of his 1913 ballet The Rite of Spring has become legendary, cementing his reputation as a musical enfant terrible. Surprisingly, though, Stravinsky insisted that his music was not modern, but traditional. In his writings he extolled tradition, order and discipline; and in his music he honored the Christian faith, composing a notable collection of religious works. Reconciling the popular vision of Stravinsky as a musical “bad boy” with the reality of a man who believed in a literal Devil, displayed Byzantine icons in his study, and was influenced by neo-Thomism is not as difficult as it seems. As we shall see, a deep love of folk tradition was the thread that connected the various phases of Stravinsky’s artistic personality.

Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), with its spasmodic rhythms and dissonant harmonies depicting a fertility sacrifice in pagan Russia, shocked the public of 1913. Yet with hindsight the work could be seen as the swan song of decadent late Romanticism. Quite different aesthetic values asserted themselves after World War I. A paring-down trend—inspired in part by the material austerity of the times—was setting in throughout the arts. Music was moving away from the bombast and shock value of the fin de siècle to something more streamlined, cool, and “modern.” And in their search for order amidst the chaos of modernity, some of the great creative minds of Europe were turning to religious tradition.

Stravinsky had left his native Russia in the wake of the Great War and the Communist Revolution and settled, first in Switzerland, then in France. Although brought up in the Russian Orthodox Church, he had drifted from the faith in his early adult years; now in practical exile from his native land, Orthodoxy provided a home away from home, a portable sign of Russianness. In 1926, when in his mid-forties, Stravinsky started attending liturgy regularly at an Orthodox church in Paris that served the Russian émigré population.

Years later Stravinsky related that a miraculous healing had played a role in his reconversion. In 1925 when suffering from an abscess in his right finger, he prayed at a church in Nice before a “miraculous” icon for healing. Not long afterwards he gave a concert in Venice, and as he sat down at the piano to play his Piano Sonata and removed the bandage from his finger, he discovered that the abscess was miraculously healed.

Stravinsky’s religious reawakening coincided with the conversions of other artistic giants such as the poet T.S. Eliot (in 1927) and the novelist Evelyn Waugh (in 1930). These were not isolated incidents, but part of a growing trend. After the calamity of the Great War, many European artists were searching for order, reason and stability. Some rejected the radical modernism of the early years of the century, moving instead towards a “neoclassical” modernism aimed at preserving and revitalizing the ever more precarious Western tradition.

In pursuing this path, Stravinsky was influenced substantially by Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), the Thomist philosopher who led a Catholic intellectual revival in France between the World Wars. In books such as Art and Scholasticism (1920) Maritain had articulated a neo-Thomistic aesthetics. He extolled the craftsman-like artistic attitude of the Middle Ages as contrasted with Romantic individualism, stressing the responsibility of the artist towards both beauty and truth. He also discussed how Catholics could be artistically modern in the context of a “perennial faith.” In a revised edition of the book Maritain hailed Stravinsky as a living example of the ideal Christian artist, praising the “discipline,” “classical rigor,” and “purity” of his more recent music.

After befriending Maritain in 1926, Stravinsky’s own statements about aesthetics began to echo the philosopher’s, moving towards a religiously informed traditionalism. “The more one separates oneself from the canons of the Christian Church,” he declared in a 1930 interview, “the further one separates oneself from the truth.” And then there was his notorious, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, statement to a reporter: “I hate modern music,” by which he meant a faddish modernism that pursued shock effects for their own sake.

Stravinsky expounded his aesthetic philosophy at length in a series of lectures given at Harvard University and published in 1942 as Poetics of Music. Much as Aristotle’s Poetics did for poetry, Stravinsky’s book treats the doing or making of music, its techne in philosophical terms. Stravinsky deals with the creative process, comparing artistic inspiration with the work of the Holy Spirit. He emphasizes the importance of rules and discipline, which paradoxically result in greater freedom for the artist: “The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free.” He speaks to the importance of tradition and the illusory nature of the “revolutionary” as applied to music; to amplify this, Stravinsky quotes G.K. Chesterton’s paradox about revolution implying a return to its point of origin. The Poetics reveals Stravinsky as not only one of the greatest composers but also one of the great minds and wits of the twentieth century.

But the ultimate testament of Stravinsky’s beliefs is found in his music. Stravinsky was an uprooted, Westernized Russian, deeply respectful of the Church of Rome (he considered converting at various points of his life, and his son Theodore did eventually cross the Tiber), but attached to Eastern Orthodoxy. His religious works often pour an Orthodox sensibility—evidenced in their hieratic, emotionally muted quality—into a Roman Catholic mold.  

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Three Russian Sacred Choruses (composed between 1926 and 1934) express Stravinsky’s newly found faith in music of ingratiating simplicity, recalling Russian Orthodox Church music in unfiltered terms. The three pieces (Pater noster, Ave Maria, and Credo) are in Church Slavonic, but Stravinsky later fashioned Latin versions. These lovely short works have become popular with a cappella choral groups.

Many critics consider the Symphony of Psalms, a grand choral symphony, to be Stravinsky’s masterpiece. He wrote it in 1930 on a commission from the Boston Symphony, dedicating it “to the glory of God.” Its three movements are settings of Psalms 38, 39 and 40, respectively, from the Latin Vulgate. They correspond to the prayer modes of supplication, thanksgiving, and praise, and together suggest a trajectory from turmoil and distress on earth to adoration of God in heaven.

Musically, Symphony of Psalms assimilates Gregorian chant, Bachian polyphony, Russian rhythms, and the Impressionist harmonies of Debussy, filtering them all through a brilliant Art Deco modernism. In the third movement, Laudate Dominum, Stravinsky revives some of the barbaric energy of The Rite of Spring, but employs it to suggest the wild joy of divine praise. In the final section of the work the excitement dissolves in an eternal stillness, with a sense of suspended time as the chorus repeats the words of praise over an orchestral ostinato. This celestial music is like an icon in sound.

Stravinsky wrote no more religious music until 1944 and Babel, a short cantata for reciter, male chorus and orchestra. By now the composer had settled in Hollywood, California as a refugee from World War II. Babel was commissioned as a part of the Genesis Suite, a collaborative effort among several composers, the aim of which was to make modern classical music more accessible. There was something distinctly Hollywoodish about the affair, with the spoken words of the Bible combined with orchestral and choral music in a way that suggested a cinematic epic. The music of Babel is more frankly descriptive than is usual for Stravinsky, with a skittering fugue depicting humanity’s fall into chaos and linguistic confusion.

Around the same time as Babel, Stravinsky had begun work on his one and only Mass. Completed in 1948, the Mass for choir and wind instruments was written “from spiritual necessity” (as Stravinsky’s assistant Robert Craft claimed) rather than from a commission. Stravinsky intended the Mass for actual liturgical performance—the score contains intonations for “the priest”—but the premiere performance was at an opera house and it has, regrettably, seldom been performed as part of an actual Mass. In this work, Stravinsky created a haunting amalgam of the ancient and the modern. At times the vocal incantations suggest Orthodox chant or medieval polyphony. The wind instruments form a glowing background to the choir, like the gold of a Byzantine icon. Stravinsky explained that the Credo is the longest movement because “there is much to believe.”

One of the most intriguing works of Stravinsky’s later years is his Cantata (1953), based on old English texts. The fourth movement of this work is a setting for tenor and small instrumental ensemble of the traditional Christmas carol lyric “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day”:

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play
To call my true love to my dance.

As we discover, this is not an ordinary human lover inviting his sweetheart to a dance, but Christ, the Divine Lover, calling humanity to himself. The tenor goes on to narrate the entire life of Christ, from the Nativity to the Ascension, in eleven verses. Stravinsky’s music is contrapuntally intricate—based on the polyphonic device of the canon—yet of piercing beauty, with moments of striking musical storytelling. The cantata as a whole is bound together by comforting recurrences of the “Lyke Wake Dirge,” a medieval lyric relating the hazards in the soul’s journey from death to Purgatory.

Stravinsky’s final religious compositions date from his “serial period,” when he had begun to compose according to the ultra-modern twelve-tone method of Arnold Schoenberg. This body of music is more abstruse and cerebral and less immediately appealing than his earlier work, though shot through with moments of beauty. Perhaps Stravinsky was starting to focus more on the eternal things as he grew older, and consequently he wrote more religious music than ever before: Canticum Sacrum (1958), a sacred cantata first performed at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice; Threni (1958), based on the Lamentations of Jeremiah; A Sermon, A Narrative, and a Prayer (1961), a Biblical cantata; The Flood (1962), a musical play for television based on the Bible and medieval mystery plays; Abraham and Isaac, a “sacred ballad” in Hebrew dedicated to the people of Israel; and his final testament, Requiem Canticles (1966), a setting of selected verses from the Latin Requiem Mass.

Stravinsky had traveled a long road from The Rite of Spring, yet in a sense he had not changed at all. In his biography of Stravinsky, Paul Griffiths speaks of the “festival spirit” and “play element” that permeate his music, claiming that Stravinsky’s art evinces a “joyful acceptance of an intelligent order in life.” This festive spirit can be expressed as rejoicing and comic exuberance or as the tragic and funereal, but it is always deeply connected with ritual, liturgy, ceremony, and folk roots; with the primal life cycles of man. This holds the key for understanding why the same composer who created the savagery of Rite of Spring should have written so many powerful pieces of religious music during his career. All considered, Stravinsky’s output qualifies him as one of the last Christian humanists in the world of art.

Michael De Sapio

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Michael De Sapio is a writer and classical musician from the Washington, DC area. He writes about religion, music, and vintage popular culture for such print and online outlets as Fanfare Magazine, The Papist, Conservative Book Club, The Twilight Zone Museum, and Imaginative Conservative, among others. Mr. De Sapio is a graduate of The Catholic University of America and the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

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