Encores & Curtain Calls: Stravinsky’s Stairway to Heaven
“The Church knew what the psalmist knew: Music praises God. Music is well or better able to praise him than the building of the church and all its decoration; it is the Church’s greatest ornament.”
— Igor Stravinsky
One never knows quite what conductor Hugh Keelan has up his sleeve for his next concert. It might be a self-orchestrated chamber version of Puccini’s seldom-heard masterpiece “Suore Angelica” or, with his recent accession to the podium as director of the Windham Orchestra, now in its 47th season, donning the dual role of conductor and performer in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Whatever the programming venue may be, one has the distinct sense that Keelan is coming at it with a gravitas and an intensity of an individual who would be more likely to be found at the helm of a major metropolitan orchestra then a largely amateur regional group in western New England.
Indeed, upon going backstage to complement the English emigree after a superb performance of the exquisite Puccini opera, in which his wife, Laurie Green, performed the title role, one had the definite impression of a man burdened by the knowledge that he had not quite done complete justice to his intended artistic trajectory — and who was not about to let the earnest complements of a handful of grateful listeners deter him from his sobering conviction.
But whatever his shared or unshared concerns, he is clearly a musician out to make the best of the resources he has available to him — professional or non-professional. He is willing to risk novel and uncharted territory in order to create new artistic challenges and he shows no signs of relenting.
This time around, Keelan has set his sights on performing what I, for one, feel quite certain is ground-breaking Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s greatest work — his “Symphony of Psalms” of 1939. And Keelan’s bent on doing this rigorous and demanding work with a chorus comprised of the massed choruses of Windham County’s four high schools. The concert opens with Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks” and is followed by Grieg’s “Holberg Suite” for strings.
This decision no doubt emerges from the orchestra’s fourfold purpose : 1) performing live orchestral music in Brattleboro, Vt., and surrounding towns; 2) providing a performance outlet for local amateur, student and professional musicians; 3) educating local school children and 4) providing an orchestral ensemble for performance of music by local composers.
All of this — it may pain him to admit — he has nobly fulfilled and continues to fulfill.
But how can “Symphony of Psalms” possibly be in the running as Stravinsky’s chef d’oeuvre? It is a work even many who greatly admire the composer have never encountered. While I realize what a controversy this may be to some who count the composer’s early, tradition-shattering masterpieces — “The Rite of Spring,” The Firebird,” and “Petrouchka” — as his greatest creations, my assertion nevertheless sticks.
It was among the very first works on our undergraduate listening list in the Queens College music curriculum. The words “symphony” and “psalms” seemed strange bedfellows, suggesting as they did the secular and the sacred in some sort of — excuse the word — unholy matrimony.
How could one have a “symphony” of psalms? Wasn’t a psalm a religious text from the Old Testament, spiritual in nature? And, how could these be parlayed into a multi-movement orchestral setting, replete with themes, variations, symphonic formal structures while still retaining the essence of the Psalms, or psalmody?
In my maiden voyage into “Symphony of Psalms,” the first event to hit one’s sensorium was a bracing, resonant thud of a chord with a strangely primitive, almost elemental, shock-effect. Upon analyzing Stravinsky’s score much later (I dislike scanning musical maps while listening, preferring to take everything in eyes closed, immersing myself in the listening experience), I realized wherein its unique strangeness lay. While richly orchestrated, and clearly powerful, it revealed itself to be a major chord “missing one of its teeth,” so to speak, and comprised of only two of the major chord’s almost always-present trio, or triad, of notes — the root and the third.
The upper-echelon fifth — or top note of the triad — was nowhere to be found.
Two notes, three notes ... who cares? you ask. A reasonable question. The answer, of course, is, whether you realize it or not, you care. Your brain, your nervous system and, eventually, your emotions all “are.” They “care” by responding in radically different ways to even such seemingly slight alchemical sonic alterations as this, in which a single tone can spell the difference between heaven and earth. In the parallel realm of physics, the addition of one oxygen molecule to the H2O (2 hydrogens and 1 oxygen) of water turns it into the dangerously caustic hydrogen peroxide, another substance entirely.
Suffice it to say Stravinsky’s opening is raw, earthy and characteristically elemental. It has not been”civilized” by the “topknot” of the fifth. Immediately following this comes an upward rush of woodwind runs in unison, dropping off into rapid arpeggios, bone dry of any harmony, absolutely devoid of any sentiments that night remotely be mistaken for sacred. The very spareness and bonyness are like streaks on an otherwise empty canvas of space, whetting the ears for what is to come.
No sooner to have these vanished then there emerges a core of human voices, charged with ominous intensity, chanting above a lava pit of boiling woodwinds, sounding more like a long-missing passage from the cauldron of “The Rite of Spring” then a “Symphony of Psalms.”
The energy is primal, even mythic — pure Stravinsky at his magical best. No so-called “sacred” work was ever like this – there is no serenity, no mystical peace to be heard, but only the roiling forces of a gathering volcanic eruption atavistic emotions. There is no Savior in sight here.
Indeed, none other than the admired Leonard Bernstein, in, I believe, one of his six wonderful Norton lectures at Harvard, remarks, half-astonished, upon considering this eerie opening, in some such words as this: “What in the world is going on here? It sounds as if Stravinsky is putting his orchestra through scale drills!”
But years of reflection on this initially glowering, increasingly haunting and progressively transcendent composition have revealed the secret of its magic. Unlike virtually all other composers before or after him, the wily, ever-refractory Stravinsky decided that it would have been morally illegal to enter the spiritual heights at the very outset of a piece, as if the promise of heaven were guaranteed — indeed, a fait accompli.
Stravinsky knew the Kingdom of Heaven had to be earned by traveling the gauntlet of a maelstrom starting from the subterranean strata of existence, through an inescapable, evolutionary progression from the savage through to the sacred. This was, for him, the only truly honest way to God and the mystical heights. All the dark, demonic forces within the human soul had to be owned up to, faced, and composted into a soil that would eventually give birth to the long-sought Garden of Eden lest humanity — so prone to illusion — imagine itself to be far farther along the path of overcoming than it actually is.
The splendid, frightening, exultant “Symphony of Psalms” is Stravinsky’s brilliant musical bridge spanning the abyss from hell to heaven, for all souls courageous enough to dare risk crossing it.
Windham Orchestra: Psalms & Fireworks, Friday, Jan. 25, 7:30 p.m., Bellows Falls Union High School, Bellows Falls, Vt. Sunday, Jan. 27, 3 p.m., Brattleboro Union High School, Brattleboro, Vt.
To purchase tickets ($15, $10 seniors & students), call the Brattleboro Music Center at
802-257-4523 or visit bmcvt.org .
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at