On music history’s broad timeline, Ludwig van Beethoven and Igor Stravinsky have very little in common. They were born 112 years and 2,300 miles apart. (A trek from Bonn to St. Petersburg is roughly the same distance as New York City to Phoenix.) Their music occupied vastly different places along the trip from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s folksy and intuitive classicism to Arnold Schoenberg’s math-inspired and often listener-unfriendly “twelve tone” or “serial” music.  

But there’s something about some of their choral music that makes two signature styles complement each other. Not like Schumann’s and Schubert’s art songs, or Mozart’s and Haydn’s symphonies. No, these two are like jigsaw puzzle pieces from different boxes that somehow look right as we snap them together into place, as long as you look at them under just the right light. In this case it’s about the words as much as the music. 

If you love choral sounds, you can hear this for yourself on May 11 at the Music Center at Strathmore when The Washington Chorus performs with the National Philharmonic. Eugene Rogers will lead musicians through a quick French scene-setter by Lili Boulanger and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms before tackling Beethoven’s Mass in C Major. 

Maestro Rogers tells me why he programmed these pieces together: “One half is amazing sacred concert repertoire composed in France around the early 20th century and the second half is one of Beethoven’s great choral classics — his earliest mass setting from 1807.”  

He says there are major differences in how singers should approach the two big pieces. “Both the Boulanger and the Stravinsky require the singers to use a clear, bright and forward focused sound. Stravinsky, as we know, was extremely specific about the musical demands and articulation for the performers.” That can include what he called “misplaced accents, unorthodox breaths and many varied vocal and instrumental colors.”  

But in his mass, Beethoven “asks the performers to make every phrase both beautiful and musical regardless of the tessitura, phrase length and character. We have spent a lot of time highlighting the contrasts yet making every final ending and musical phrase beautiful.” (Tessitura is the range of notes that are comfortably within a given singer’s voice.)  

These two masterworks definitely present different challenges for singers, instrumentalists and conductors, but I think there’s a way for audiences to make sense of hearing them in sequence. More on that below. 

It’s hard not to appreciate Beethoven in a live performance when those beautiful moments nestle in your ears, but it took Stravinsky half a lifetime to like his music. “I detest Beethoven,” he said in 1922, at age 40. (To be fair, Maurice Ravel couldn’t stand his music either.) But in 1962 Stravinsky changed his tune: “At 80, I have found new joy in Beethoven.” He had dug into Beethoven’s late string quartets and decided the Grosse Fugue was “the most perfect miracle in music.” 

There’s something odd about Stravinsky’s road-to-Damascus conversion. The middle-aged Igor who detested Ludwig was writing in the “neoclassical” style — a reaction to the hyper-emotional Romantic period. This was a “back to basics” form that emphasized order, simplicity and (especially) emotional self-control. It ditched both impressionism (think Debussy and Ravel) and expressionism (think Wagner and Richard Strauss). 

Guess whose music this pared-down throwback style leaned heavily on for inspiration? Late Mozart, definitely. But also early Beethoven, whose C Major mass is full of episodes of onomatopoeia. To my ears, hearing Beethoven’s artistry laid over familiar text and orderly musical structures is like having a plain pencil sketch of a skyline and a colored pastel layer on a second piece of paper. Line them up, hold them up to the sun and look at them together. To an open mind, the colors can reveal hidden patterns and structures in the drawing. 

Here’s a wonderful example: In the Gloria, Beethoven grabs the text Laudamus te, Benedicimus te, Adoramus te, Glorificamus te (We praise you, we bless you, we worship you, we glorify you) and does something remarkable. Praising, blessing and glorifying are loud verbs. But worship is subservient, so he quiets the chorus for just a few seconds at “Adoramus” and — with no preparation or warning — drops the harmony from C Major to B-flat Major. Five syllables later and we’ve hopped right back to C. The jarring effect is like watching a Roman Catholic worshiper suddenly and softly genuflect before an altar before standing erect and walking again with purpose. 

If it’s weird that Stravinsky followed Beethoven’s lead while professing his hatred for the man, consider this: By the time he came to appreciate Beethoven, he was turning out intellectually clever but emotionally distant sounds that no one in the nineteenth century would have recognized as musical. Certainly not Ludwig. 

Both composers are known mostly for instrumental music. Neither of them was a master of opera, for instance. Beethoven spent 10 years revising Fidelio, his only effort, and it still needs a lot of help from both conductors and singers. Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is most often taken up by conservatory students, not professional opera companies. And Oedipus Rex is more of an oratorio. These, along with the rest of what Stravinskophiles call opera, are really side dishes next to the meat of music.  

Choral music was a different animal, though — a second entrée with its own recipe. Think of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. The “Ode to Joy” finale wasn’t an add-on, like the movement-long soprano solo that closes Gustav Mahler’s 4th. Beethoven’s 9th almost has to be understood from back to front. From the first notes, we are on our way to Freude! Freude! Freude! at the end. (You can listen along with WETA Classical when we play it on May 7, the 200th anniversary of its premiere.) 

I wonder what Beethoven would have thought of Symphony of Psalms, but it’s probably impossible for us to understand. We listen to Stravinsky with ears that have heard Schubert songs, Wagner operas, Strauss waltzes, Tchaikovsky ballets and Taylor Swift tracks. In the choral world, we’ve connected with Verdi’s “Va pensiero,” Brahms’s Nänie, Dvorák’s Stabat Mater, and Fauré’s requiem mass. These all came after Beethoven’s death and before Stravinsky’s first music theory class. So Beethoven couldn’t have experienced Stravinsky in a different way from how 20th Century audiences did. Could a news editor in 1900 understand the Internet without knowing about telephones, personal computers and video-ready smartphones? Nope. Eras build upon eras. There’s no shortcut. 

In other words, you can understand the flow of music history only in one direction: forward. That makes Symphony of Psalms and the Beethoven mass an imaginative pairing. The mass is a creature of the New Testament, with the promise of salvation by grace for any Christian who asks for it. Psalms, though, are Old Testament bedrock that long pre-date Jesus Christ. In David’s poems we hear humanity’s cry for redemption but no sense that it’s ours for the taking. We have to earn it despite not knowing how.  

The Washington Chorus is performing the Stravinsky before the Beethoven because it’s much shorter, but that decision also puts the scripture neatly in order. We can hear how Ludwig cured what ailed Igor’s heart more than a century in advance. It’s a little like how Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro came before Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, even though Rossini’s storyline came before Mozart’s in the trilogy of plays that inspired both. If you want to grasp the bigger story, go and see the later opera first. 

Am I making too big a deal of this? No, I’m with Roger Sessions: Composers, performers and listeners are three equal stool-legs of any live performance, and listeners have to do their part. Understanding the meaning of these two pieces of music is crucial because they’re really both large-scale communal prayers — and because Christ’s life, death and resurrection come during intermission.  

Stravinsky takes us into bits of the 39th and 40th Psalms, and then through nearly all of the 150th. It’s a path that runs from despair to relief and hopefulness, and then smacks us in the face with praise to a God who hasn’t yet shown all his cards.  

The 150th is the final psalm, and the one Stravinsky took most literally. Where the first two movements seem impersonal and detached on purpose (par for his course in 1930), the third embraces some of the word-painting that was taboo in the neoclassical style. He wrote that he was trying to symbolize Elijah's chariot climbing up to heaven, and “never before had I written anything quite so literal as the triplets for horns and piano to suggest the horses and chariot.” Because of this, the big climax is every bit as triumphant as Beethoven’s Freude! — even if Stravinsky finishes the piece in an “Adoramus te” whisper. 

Why so muted? For Christians the brightest “Amen” is still centuries in the future. Stravinsky brought the Hebrews dissonance, not deliverance. But don’t worry: Beethoven offers an ear-caressing liberation from human frailty. And if Stravinsky was reluctant to make his music too descriptive, Beethoven’s mass practically bear-hugs the idea. 

More word painting: When the text refers to God as a one-of-a-kind “only” deity, Beethoven drops everyone into unison, octaves apart. Jesus descendit de coelis (“descended from heaven”), so the voices step downward for effect. Pontius Pilate gets a slithering snake-like tumble from the choir, one half-step at a time. Et incarnatus est (“and he was made flesh”) carries with it a musical hush, more “Silent Night” than “Adeste Fideles.” Beethoven knew his audience: Worshipers were accustomed to bowing when they recited that line in church.  

Like the Stravinsky, the Lili Boulanger treat at the top of the May 11 concert is based on a Psalm text — the 24th, in this case, in French. “The Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. … Who is he, this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty!”  


You might hear it as a scene-setter for Symphony of Psalms and the Beethoven mass yet to come. The subtext goes something like this: 

Boulanger: Meet God. He made everything and he’s stronger than we are.  

Stravinsky: Life is scary and death is scarier, but we pray to this awesome God and he answers us. Then we praise him. Loud, percussion-aided praise. Trust us: It’s big. 

Beethoven: Meet Jesus. He’s awesome squared. Let’s go over the main points together for 40 minutes. It’s worth your time. There will be word-painting. 

Beethoven helpfully gave Stravinsky all the material he needed to write vintage neoclassical music without appreciating its source. Igor even writes not one but two double fugues in his vocal “symphony.” But remember: He hated Beethoven. 

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