Stravinsky wrote his Symphony of Psalms for a commission by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by Serge Kosssevitzky, in 1930. Since the commissioner did not impose many limitations (only that they receive a large scale work for their fifty year jubilee celebrations), Stravinsky realised a plan that he has considered much earlier, for composing a work for choir and orchestra, based on the Biblical psalms. He selected the end of 38th psalm of the Vulgate, as well as the first lines of Psalm 39 and Psalm 150 in its entirety. Thus the first movement is a kind of lament amid anxiety, the close of which directly prepares the second (the final lines of text of the second section: "and he gave a new hymn to our mouths, the praise of God." And the final one begins "Alleluja, Praise the Lord!") The proportions of the three movements are unusual. The second movement (its structure is that of a double fugue, with an overlapping instrumental and vocal section) is almost twice the length of the first, while the third is double the length again. It is characteristic of Stravinsky’s arts poetica that for him praise is not loud: the choir says the Allelujas softly, and there is only energetic forte-music, as a contrast, in the central section of the movement.
Stravinsky conducted the Symphony of Psalms during his only post-war visit to Budapest on May 8th 1963, at the Erkel Theatre. It was a concert no one who was there has forgotten. Apparently, the 81 year old master conducted the quietly receding song that begins the opening movement with exceptional discipline so that it unfolded above the four note ostinato-bass (E flat, B flat, F, B flat) not in quarter beats but in sixths. He restrained the choir who instinctively felt the urge to accelerate and pick up momentum, to an unbelievable degree. János Ferencsik later stated that he had never heard such a superb performance, and that Stravinsky remained the best conductor he had ever met.