Following his return to Russian Orthodoxy in 1926, Stravinsky (1882–1971) composed 13 pieces that used biblical or other liturgical texts or relied on stories from the Bible (see chart below).

Otche nash; or Pater noster (1926/1949) SATB, Paris, 18 May 1934 Matt 6:9–13; Luke 11:1–4
Symphonie de psaumes (1930) SATB, orch, cond. Ansermet, Brussels, 13 Dec 1930 Pss 38:13–14; 39:2–4; 150
Simvol verï ; or Credo (1932/1949)
Bogorodnitse devo; or Ave Maria (1934) SATB, Paris, 18 May 1934 Luke 1:28, 42
Babel (1944) for male nar, male vv, orch, cond. W. Janssen, Los Angeles, 18 Nov 1945 Gen 11:1–9
Mass (1944/1947)
Canticum sacrum ad honorem Sancti Marci nominis (1955), for T, Bar, chorus, orch, Venice, 13 Sept 1956 Mov. 1: Mark 16:15
Mov. 2: Song 5:1; 6:16
Mov. 3 (Charitas): Deut 4:5; 1 John 4:7
Mov. 3 (Spes): Pss 125:1; 130:5–6
Mov. 3 (Fide): Ps 116:10
Mov. 4: Mark 9:23–24
Mov. 5: Mark 16:20
Threni: id est Lamentationes Jeremiae prophetae (1957–1958) for S, A, 2 T, 2 B, chorus, orch, cond. Stravinsky, Venice, 23 Sept 1958 Vulgata, Lam 1:1, 2, 5, 11, 20; 3:1–6, 16–27, 34–36, 40–45, 49–66; 5:1, 19, 21
A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer (1960–1961) cantata for A, T, spkr, chorus, orch Rom 8:24–25; Heb 9:1; 12:29; Acts 6:2, 4–5, 7–12, 15; 7:1, 51–52, 54, 55, 57–60
from Thomas Dekker, Foure Birds of Noah’s Arke (1609)
The Flood (1961–1962) compiled by Robert Craft, based on the York pageants of The Creation and the Fall of Lucifer and The Fall of Man; the Chester pageant of Noah’s Flood, with brief quotations from Genesis (1:9–11, 20–22, 24, 26), Te Deum and Sanctus
Abraham and Isaac (1962–1963) sacred ballad, Bar, chbr orch, 1962–1963 cond. Craft, Jerusalem, 23 Aug 1964 Gen 22:1–9
Introitus (T. S. Eliot in memoriam) (1965) male vv, pf, hp, 2 timp, 2 tam-tams, va, dbs Introitus from the Requiem Mass (2 Esd 2:34–35; Ps 64)
Requiem Canticles (1965–1966) selected lines from the text of the Requiem Mass

Stretching from 1926 to the end of his compositional career, these sacred works represent a wide range of compositional styles, from the simple a cappella setting of Otche nash through the neoclassical Symphony of Psalms to the serial works of the 1950s and 1960s.

Although Orthodox by confession, Stravinsky wrote only three choral pieces in Church Slavonic: Otche nash, Simvol verï, and Bogorodnitse devo; even these he revised in 1949 in Latin as Pater noster, Credo, and Ave Maria. The Orthodox Church strictly prohibits the use of instruments in sacred music, and since Stravinsky found a cappella music too restricting, he quickly changed alliance in his compositional practice, writing more sacred music in Latin than in any other languages. Stravinsky preferred Latin to Church Slavonic not only because it was more familiar to Western audiences, but also because he wished to locate his sacred music in the tradition of Western church music, which had a more prestigious historical pedigree than Russian Orthodox music. His sacred music in Latin includes Symphony of Psalms, Mass, Canticum sacrum, Threni, Introitus, and Requiem Canticles. His three biblical dramas, Babel, A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer, and The Flood, all written in the United States, are in English. One of his late sacred pieces, Abraham and Isaac, is in Hebrew. Below I discuss only pieces with strictly biblical texts, leaving out the Pater noster, Credo, Ave Maria, Mass, Introitus, and Requiem Canticles.

Composed in 1930 on a commission from the Boston Symphony celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, Symphony of Psalms is Stravinsky’s first major work on actual biblical texts. The “symphony” in the title does not imply a symphonic work in the tradition of the nineteenth century but a combination of instruments and voices in the original Latin meaning of the word, “sounding together.” As his text Stravinsky chose Psalms 38:13–14, 39:2–4, and 150, “poems of exaltation … anger and judgment, and even curses,” as the composer described them to Robert Craft. Stravinsky recollected that he composed the first movement “in a state of religious and musical ebullience.” The second movement, a double fugue for orchestra and voices, evokes the contrapuntal techniques of J. S. Bach, whose initials (reversed and inverted) Stravinsky incorporated into the top notes of the first fugue theme. The “Alleluia” at the beginning of the third movement responds to the prayer for new canticles of Psalm 39.

Stravinsky adamantly denied that his music expressed the text or his feelings. He considered music as “an entity of its own” and treated the text as “sounds of the syllables.” To emphasize his detachment from the meaning of the text, he accentuated nonaccented syllables, constructed rhythmic figures that work against the natural rhythm of the text, and split words following the model of early polyphonic music. Yet even Stravinsky admitted that some of the music was inspired directly by the biblical text: he regarded Psalm 150 as “a song to be danced” and acknowledged that the triplets for horns and piano in the third movement were meant to be a musical depiction of Elijah’s chariot climbing to Heaven.

The seven-minute cantata Babel for narrator, male chorus, and orchestra marked Stravinsky’s first venture into English text setting. Babel was commissioned by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer staff composer Nathaniel Shilkret, who in 1944 asked prominent composers to contribute one movement to a suite based on stories from Genesis. The resulting “Genesis Suite” was first performed on 18 November 1945 in Los Angeles. Unlike Shilkret, who supplied highly descriptive music in Hollywoodian fashion, Stravinsky insisted that music could not and should not express or depict anything. He built his movement on abstract musical principles: variations over a ground bass, augmentation and inversion of themes, and, in culmination, a fugue. Stravinsky’s fugue is not, however, completely abstract: the theme’s spreading in the different parts can be heard as a musical rendering of God’s scattering of people “upon the face of the earth.” Believing it inappropriate to assign God’s words to one voice, Stravinsky assigned them to a two-part male chorus. Distinguishing God’s voice would remain an important feature of his later sacred works.

Stravinsky wrote Canticum sacrum ad honorem Sancti Marci nominis for tenor and baritone solo, chorus, and orchestra in 1955 for the International Festival of Contemporary Music in Venice. He dedicated the new piece to Venice’s patron saint, St. Mark, whose five-dome basilica inspired the work’s five-movement symmetrical structure and trombone-heavy instrumentation. The text also draws on the Gospel of Mark, whose lines about the imperative of the resurrected Jesus to preach the gospel Stravinsky uses in the first and last movements.

To further emphasize the connection between these two movements, Stravinsky recasts the last as the almost exact retrograde of the first. The text of the fourth movement also comes from Mark, the casting out the evil spirit from a child proving the power of faith, pronounced in the central movement as one of the Christian virtues. The text of the three-part third movement, “Ad Tres Virtutes Hortationes,” is a compilation from Deuteronomy, a letter from St. John, and three psalms. Canticum sacrum contains Stravinsky’s first completely 12-tone movement (“Surge, aquilo”). But the piece also pays tribute to the composer’s earlier neoclassical style and his enthusiasm for early music. Inspired by early-seventeenth-century Venetian sacrae symphoniae, Stravinsky reduces his orchestra to woodwinds and brass, organ, harp, and low strings. The “Dedicatio” evokes early polyphonic music, ending on a perfect fifth. In the second movement choral tuttis alternate with organ ritornellos. The delicate, 12-tone second movement for tenor solo, the text of which comes from the Song of Songs, is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s earlier, instrumentally inspired neoclassical vocal style. As in the Symphony of Psalms, Stravinsky is careful to avoid strong illustrative relationships between the music and text. He sets the male and female dialogue of the second movement for tenor only, interrupts the line in the first movement without syntactical logic, and repeats words not for emphasis but for a stammering effect. Yet the strict construction and scrupulous logic of the music reflect Stravinsky’s conception of faith as order, dogma, and submissive obedience. In the last section, “Fides,” of the central movement he constructs a six-part canon, consisting of a four-part chorus and evenly moving winds playing a two-part augmented version of the same series of notes. Nothing could express more precisely Stravinsky’s faith than this skillful combination of the strictest compositional techniques, both new (12-tone method) and old (counterpoint).

Stravinsky followed Canticum sacrum with another commission for the Venice Biennale of Contemporary Music, Threni, a setting of selected passages from The Lamentations of Jeremiah for six vocal soloists, mixed choir, and orchestra. Stravinsky conducted its premiere on 23 September 1958. Although influenced by Renaissance liturgical settings of Lamentations by Palestrina, William Byrd, and Thomas Tallis, Stravinsky received his main inspiration from Ernst Krenek, who had shared with him the score of his own serial setting of the text. Unlike Krenek’s Lamentations, Stravinsky’s Threni has no liturgical function. He set only selected lines from chapters 1, 3, and 5. As he did in Canticum sacrum, Stravinsky highlights the divine number three of the Trinity on a structural level: he divides Threni into three parts, and further divides the middle movement into three sections: “Complaint” (Quarimonia), “Perceiving Hope” (Sensus spei), and “Compensation” (Solacium). Following the liturgical tradition, Stravinsky sets the Hebrew letters marking the beginning of each line, creating, in Eric Walter White’s words, “a series of illuminated initials embellishing a manuscript.” Only the last part, which uses texts from chapter 5 that do not form an acrostic, lacks these luminous initials.

Threni is Stravinsky’s first completely serial composition, based on one 12-tone row or series of intervals, which he transposes, inverts, and uses in retrograde forms to create technically intricate combinations. But not all its technical intricacies are related to his new serial method. The complex contrapuntal textures, frequent canons, polyphonic textures expanding to eight parts at the end of “Sensus spei,” the split vocal forces reminiscent of Venetian conventions, pay tribute to Renaissance and early Baroque vocal traditions. From his large orchestra Stravinsky uses only chamber settings of instruments to create a constantly changing instrumental backdrop to the dominant vocal parts that appear alone, in combinations of two, three, four, or even eight voices, as part of solo groups or chorus, with instrumental accompaniment or in a cappella settings. In the first movement pitchless choral declamation anticipates the text of a returning section sung by women’s chorus and tenor solo. Similar rhythmic declamation returns briefly in the last movement. Although conceived with Venetian vocal traditions in mind, Threni was not performed in the Basilica of St. Mark, but in the hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Stravinsky dedicated its performance to the recently deceased Alessandro Piovesan, former director of the Venice Biennale.

Stravinsky composed A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer for the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, who performed it with the Basel Chamber Orchestra in 1962. The texts were chosen by his assistant, Robert Craft. Selecting passages from the letters of Paul for the first movement might have been a gesture to honor the like-named conductor, to whom Stravinsky dedicated the work. Even the narrative of the second movement, from Acts 6–8, relates to St. Paul, since the witnesses of the martyr Stephen’s execution place their garments in front of Saul, the future St. Paul. The text of the last movement comes from a collection of prayers, Foure Birds of Noah’s Arke, by the English writer Thomas Dekker (ca. 1572–ca. 1632).

A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer, like Stravinsky’s two previous cantatas, is constructed as a triptych, in which two shorter movements surround a longer central piece. Stravinsky conceived it as a New Testament counterpart to Threni and the Canticum sacrum, which were based on texts from the Old Testament. In the first movement a four-part chorus whispers in pitchless declamation the religious dogma: “The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen is faith.” In the central movement Stravinsky divides the narration between a speaker, who declaims his lines in measured and unmeasured rhythm, and the alto soloist. Stravinsky assigns St. Stephen’s lines to the tenor solo, accompanied, as the saint announces the opening of heaven, with divine harp. Stravinsky underlines the dispute in the synagogue with grotesquely jumping buffoonish bassoons, complemented by the counterpoint of the oboes. Following the tradition of passion music, Stravinsky adds a long melisma to the word “cried.” St. Stephen’s last words are sung alternately by alto and tenor soloists, combined to encompass a superhuman range. The last movement is set in a manner of a funeral procession accompanied by three tam-tam, harp, and piano to evoke the bells of a Russian Orthodox service. Dekker’s prayer is sung by the alto and tenor soloists, joined by the chorus. Although the music is 12-tone, its final alleluia evokes the Symphony of Psalms.

Stravinsky’s The Flood, composed in 1961–1962 for CBS Television, is closest in conception to Babel. Failing to enlist T. S. Eliot as his librettist, Stravinsky asked Robert Craft to draft the text and the scenario from sections of Genesis and three pageants: The Creation and the Fall of Lucifer, The Fall of Man, and Noah’s Flood. Stravinsky’s biblical drama starts with creation and moves through the fall of Lucifer and the original sin of Adam and Eve before Noah is introduced.

Alternately designated as a musical play, a biblical allegory, and a dance drama, The Flood is a strange mixture of choreographic scenes, measured declamation or free speech over music, oratorio-like choral and solo singing, and comic scenes. It is neither opera nor ballet, oratorio or cantata. It starts and ends with a chorus singing Latin liturgical music (Te Deum at the beginning, Sanctus at the end); it has arias for God and Lucifer, the two celestial beings Stravinsky allowed to sing; narration over music; purely instrumental music to be choreographed as the “Building of the Ark” and “The Flood”; two comic scenes, one between God and the hesitant Noah, the other between Noah and his shrewish wife. As in Babel, Stravinsky refused to assign God’s words to one singer but set them for two basses consistently introduced and accompanied by steady drum rolls. To emphasize the divine authority of the bass register, Stravinsky omits that range from the choral textures. He contrasts God’s authority with Lucifer’s vainglorious nature by setting his words to a high, as he described it, “slightly pederastic tenor.” During the temptation scene Lucifer, appearing in the shape of a snake, speaks in falsetto voice, accompanied by two muted horns, their movement inviting, in Stravinsky’s words, a belly dance.

Despite these obviously picturesque elements, Stravinsky’s music is forbiddingly abstract, adhering to his late 12-tone style. He purposefully left “The Catalogue of the Animals” without musical reference to the animals. The dance movements lack rhythmic impulse and are constructed according to abstract structural principles. Although intended to call attention to the “Eternal Catastrophe,” inherent in man’s creation of the nuclear bomb, Stravinsky’s The Flood failed to capture the imagination of television viewers.

Stravinsky wrote his final biblical drama, Abraham and Isaac, “A Sacred Ballad for Baritone and Chamber Orchestra,” in 1962 for the people of Israel as a “token of gratitude. … for their generosity and hospitality during [his] tour” that year. He set Genesis 22:1–19 in Hebrew, a language he did not know. Sir Isaiah Berlin provided him with both Russian and English transliterations and a word-by-word English translation. Stravinsky strongly discouraged performances in translation, for, as he wrote, “the syllables, both as accentuation and timbre, are a precisely fixed and principal element of the music.”

As rarely happens in Stravinsky’s oeuvre, verbal and musical accentuations coincide, although, as in other works with text, he denies that his music has any illustrative or symbolic relationship to the words. He sets the biblical text for baritone solo alone, not distinguishing between narration and dialogue. Occasionally, as in the dialogue between the angel and Abraham, he marks the change of roles by a change of dynamics. The music is not, however, unrelated to the text. For emphatic reasons Stravinsky leaves the first pronunciation of the name Abraham unaccompanied. He highlights the thrice-repeated word shama’ta (harkened) toward the end with trill-like melismas, creates similar vocal phrases punctuated by similar woodwind patterns for the repeated word vayomer (he said) in the dialogue between Abraham and Isaac, and underlines the presence of the supernatural with shimmering string tremolos at the mention of Elohim (God) twice in the score. The music is not clearly divided into separate sections, but changing tempos, short pauses, instrumental interludes, and varied instrumental textures articulate the score. Like Stravinsky’s other late pieces, Abraham and Isaac is a serial work, built on a 12-tone row sounded in its entirety only at the beginning of the piece.


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Klára Móricz