Symphony of Psalms: movement III by Igor Stravinsky Analysis

The Symphony of Psalms: movement III adopted a new classical style called the neo-classical style. Below is a complete analysis of Stravinsky’s piece. Feel free to skip to the parts most relevant to you.

Quick Facts

  • The instruments used were dominated by the wind which was typical of a jazz band.
  • There is frequent syncopation especially in the faster sections.
  • The double bass features pizzicato ostinatoes (repeating phrase) which sound like a walking bass line in jazz.
  • The piece is sung generally syllabically (one note for every syllable).
  • The piece begins where it started with the slow moving Alleluia section.
  • The altos and tenors play with an octave separation.
  • Having a three note ostinato in a four beat bar causes syncopation to occur.
  • There are no violins, cellos or clarinets in the orchestra.
  • There is the use of quintuple instruments: 5 flutes and 5 trumpets.
  • There is a traditional four voice harmony: Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass.
  • The harmony is non-functional because there is no sense of the piece building towards cadences (7th chords don’t need to resolve).
  • The rhythm changes between being very slow with minims and semi-breves to being fast with use of quavers and triplets.

Analysis of Music

This will help very much if you have the score of Symphony of Psalms: movement III.
  • At the start, there is a homophonic texture for the voices.
  • ‘Symphony’ and ‘Psalms’ do not go together. Stravinsky here as a modern composer is doing what he wants.
  • Stravinsky was commissioned to compose a piece to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the orchestra.
  • It was 1930 when this piece was first performed. It is written to be performed at a concert hall: not in a Church.
  • There is a diminished triad in bar 3. The bass note G clashes against the A flat causing a dissonant sound. The next chord is a chord of C minor 7. 
  • The voices are chanting like a Russian Orthodox Church. 
  • There is a minor 3rd at the start of bar 4 with the C and E flat.
  • A major 3rd appears at the end of bar 4 between a B flat and D. 
  • Stravinsky uses bitonality (use of more than one key at once). This is clear from the start seeming to hint towards E flat major and E minor. This results in a clash where Stravinsky is trying to be classical and 20th century at the same time (bitonality is common in 20th century music).
  • There is consonant major chord on ‘Dominum’ (meaning ‘God’) at bar 8. This is a big tonal chord for the piece.
  • Bar 15 features a three note ostinato of the repeating low C, high C, G. However, Flute 1 and 2 are playing the ostinato he wrong way being low G, C, high G. 
  • A consonant chord appears at bar 22 of C major.
  • The three note ostinatoes at 15-19 produce cross rhythms because they are being played in four beats to the bar.
  • The Second Subject appears at bar 24.
  • The second subject is off the beat starting with a crochet rest. 
  • The use of the repeating quavers (a motif that will become more frequent during this symphony) creates tension and excitement.
  • Bar 25 in the bass has an ostinato which is very similar to a walking bass in steps (conjunct motion).
  • Another motif appears at bar 29-31 in Trumpet 1. At the same time as this motif, the harp plays 3rds.
  • The Violoncello features pizzicato at bar 30 telling the musician to pluck the strings. At bar 32, ‘arco’ is used telling the Violoncello to use his bow now.
  • There is a D major triad at bar 37 in Horns 1 and 2.
  • There is the use of triplet rhythms at bar 41 while Horns 1 and 2 play the quaver motif with E major triads. The long semi-breve at bar 42 increases the tension.
  • Bar 49 features D major chords with a G sharp bass.
  • The time signature changes from 4/4 to 2/2.
  • At bar 55, there is a two part texture otherwise known as a contrapuntal texture.
  • The Alto is not very big on the melody at bar 56 where there is a contrapuntal texture.
  • There is a whole tone scale at 62-63 in the Soprano.
  • The motif from bar 24 (Lau-da-te DO-MI-NUM) appears at bar 65 on the off beat.
  • There is syncopation at bars 66-72. 
  • The time meter changes from 2/2 to 3/2 at bar 71 and then changes back to 2/2 a bar later. The next change is at bar 76 to 3/2. From that moment onwards, the time meter keeps changing to 2/2, 3/2, 2/2, 4/4, 3/2, 4/4, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 3/2 and finanlly 4/4.
  • The bar 24 motif appears at bar 86.
  • There is no word painting at bar 87 in the Soprano. It does however feature a three note ostinato again in four beats creating syncopation.
  • The Recapitulation starts at bar 100.
  • At bar 109, ‘pedale de gauche’ is seen in the piano section which means to use the left pedal. The notes played are in minor 3rds.
  • At bar 115 in the Bassoon 2 and 3, a three note ostinato pattern in semitones is heard creating syncopation which the time signature in 4/4.
  • Another three note ostinato is heard in the Violoncello at bar 115 too.
  • At bar 127, the triplets are now overlapping with the ‘Laudate Dominum’ motif with the motif being in E major.
  • We are building up to a climax with higher rising chords at bar 130.
  • The Laudate Dominum motif is heard in B flat major at bar 132.
  • A three note motif is played by all the instruments at bar 144. There is a climax at bars 144-146 ending on an E major chord with a bass of A sharp.
  • Bar 150 features arpeggios of D major in the Soprano.
  • With the the Soprano singing ‘tim-pa-no’, we expect to here a timpani but there is no timpani present. This is reverse word painting because we expect word painting but there isn’t. Word painting is when the music sounds like the words being sung. 
  • Bar 151 is in G, 152 in E minor and 153 is in A minor.
  • There is imitation here at bars 151-155 in the Soprano and Bass.
  • At bar 161 in the Soprano, there is an enharmonically diminished 7th octave which is very ‘Churchy’.
  • The Coda starts at bar 163.
  • At bar 163, ‘Molto meno mosso’ means for there to be much less movement.
  • The Soprano sings ‘cym-ba-lis’. Reverse word painting is present again because there are no cymbals in the orchestra and at the time of saying this the music is very quite.
  • The Harp and Pianos 1 and 2 at bar 164 are in 4ths apart playing four note ostinatoes in three beats to the bar creating syncopation. Ostinatoes come from the baroque period.
  • The ‘Alleluia’ at bar 205-6 is understated: it is not an outburst of joy.
  • The piece ends on a C major chord and ‘Dominum’ (God).


  • The key is difficult to identify from the bitonality. However, with the use of chords G, D, E flat major and A minor, we hint towards to the tonal parts of the piece to be in C major (because the cadences are also on C).
  • The structure takes parts from a symphony as well as a psalm. Therefore, there is a recapitulation and coda with movements including different ideas and motifs.
  • The texture is mostly melody dominated homophony as well as having snippets of a contrapuntal texture.
  • Meant to celebrate the 50th year of the orchestra, there are no violins, cellos or clarinets included. Instead, a four part harmony is included.
Be sure to check out other pieces I have analysed on Ask Will Online.

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