Arvo Pärt

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There can’t be too many composers whose music has directly inspired the creation of a new record label, but it was hearing Pärt’s modal and pared down music on the radio that prompted Manfred Eicher, head of the Munich-based ECM records, to create his New Series label in 1984. Pärt has since established himself as not only one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music, but also among the most performed and recorded.

Born on 11 September 1935 in Paide, Estonia, he studied composition at the Tallinn Conservatoire under the influential teacher Heino Eller. Although Pärt’s current standing rests almost exclusively on the works he has composed since the unveiling of the tintinnabuli style in 1976, announced by the crystalline beauty of his piano miniature Für Alina, during the 1960s he had already become something of an enfant terrible in Soviet musical circles. His first mature work, the darkly expressive orchestral piece Nekrolog (1960), was also the first Estonian work to employ serialism. This provoked the wrath of the all-powerful head of the Soviet Composers’ Union, Tikhon Khrennikov, who singled out Pärt for criticism at the Third All-Union Congress of Soviet Composers, held in Moscow in March 1962.

Although serial technique underpins Pärt’s music from the 1960s, it seems that he was more fascinated with playing games with numbers and pitch sequences – later to be one of the features of the tintinnabuli style – than with the serial principle. Using other avant-garde techniques such as pointillism and aleatoricism, Pärt wrote a series of experimental works including Perpetuum Mobile (1963), dedicated to Luigi Nono whom he had met when Nono visited Tallinn in 1963, Symphony No. 1 (1964), Diagrams (1964) and Musica Sillabica (1964). In all these works, extremes of dynamics and texture at times reach cumulative points of such intensity that the music seems to be on the verge of collapse. Increasingly dissatisfied with serial technique, Pärt tried various alternative ways of furthering his musical development, including the incorporation of ‘borrowed’ tonal gestures (notably from the music of JS Bach) and the adoption of Baroque and Classical forms. In Pärt’s works from the mid-to-late ’60s a spirit of playful invention is never far from the surface: there’s the comic finality of the musical catch phrase which brings Quintettino (1964) to an ambivalent conclusion; the quotation and grotesque distortion of Bach’s Sarabande from English Suite No. 6 in the central movement of Collage on B-A-C-H (1964); and the ironic ‘cadenza’ and grandiloquent tonal conclusion of the cello concerto Pro et Contra (1966). After the remarkable Credo (1968), which represented both the culmination of his early style and the first work in which he set a religious text, Pärt reached a creative impasse and fell silent for a number of years.

Then, following an encounter with Western plainchant, Pärt was creatively reborn. He became engrossed in a study of medieval and Renaissance music and converted to the Russian Orthodox Church (Pärt was originally Lutheran). Using chant and other early music as his source, he underwent a radical change of style, paring down and reconstructing his musical ideas and technique. It wasn’t until 1976 that he intuitively discovered his new tintinnabuli style, at the core of which was a two-part unit: a stepwise ‘melodic’ line accompanied by a triadic or ‘tintinnabuli’ harmony (tintinnabulum literally means ‘small bell’).

An outpouring of works followed in what was to be Pärt’s annus mirabilis of 1977. These include three of the most enduring works of the new style: the mesmerising Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, the meticulous double violin concerto Tabula Rasa, and the circular repetitions of Fratres. Most impressive about this trio of pieces is how each work possesses its own inner, self-contained concept and unique soundworld. Central to their aesthetic effect is the unfolding of the musical process in which each musical parameter results from the strict adherence to a predetermined formula.

The most perfect realisation of the tintinnabuli came with the St John Passion (1977/82). Hoping to act merely as a vessel for the music, Pärt decided from the start that the Passion text would be made to yield the entire substance of the work. He achieved this by setting the text syllabically throughout with phrase structures, note values and caesuras between phrases governed strictly by its punctuation. The result is a work of extraordinary focus and profound restraint, at once both detached and deeply affecting.

As Pärt has remarked, it is the nature of the language being set that predetermines to a remarkable degree the specific character of each vocal work. From working predominantly with Latin texts, more recent commissions have seen him setting Italian in the ‘piccolo cantata’ Dopo la vittoria (1996) and Spanish in the psalm setting Como cierva sedienta (1998). Numerous settings in English include the stylised invocations and responses of Litany (1994), a return to St John’s Gospel for I Am the True Vine (1996) composed for the 900th anniversary of Norwich Cathedral, and the Littlemore Tractus (2001) written to commemorate the anniversary of John Henry Newman’s birth.

Of special significance is Pärt’s setting of Church Slavonic, a language used exclusively in ecclesiastical texts, in the diminutive Bogoróditse Dyévo (1990) and the imposing Kanon Pokajanen (1997). Neatly encapsulating the incredible flexibility of the tintinnabuli style, the soundworld that both works inhabit would appear to place them within the illustrious tradition of Russian Orthodox Church music, this despite the fact that they were composed using the same compositional rules as all of Pärt’s tintinnabuli music. 

Peter Quinn