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The case for the music of Arvo Pärt

French Minister of Culture Frédéric Mitterrand presents Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (centre) with the highest decoration in France, Knight of the National Order of the Legion of Honour, in 2011. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The case for the music of Arvo Pärt

The late 20th century was an odd place for composers of classical music. Increasing reliance on universities, an obsession with newness, and an apparent dwindling in audience numbers all triggered various innovative responses.

For some, including Milton Babbit, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Elliott Carter, this was a die-hard intellectual push, exploring ever more complex and densely-wrought musical systems.

For others, such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams, it meant a turn toward music that was appealing and more-or-less comprehensible upon first hearing.

Ruins of a medieval castle in Paide, Estonia. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

One of the most important and original artists to emerge from this time was Arvo Pärt, an Estonian composer and recently-turned octogenarian, born on September 11 1935.

Pärt created music with an eerie, mystical stillness. His compositional method “tintinnabuli”, an original invention, was so named for the bell-like quality of its resulting triadic harmonies.

The deeply contemplative character of much of Pärt’s music is something of a hard-won victory. Born in Paide – then part of the communist Soviet Union – Pärt began experimenting in composition as a boy without serious musical training. After a stint of military service at around the age of 20, he graduated from the Tallinn Conservatory under Heino Eller in 1963.

Estonian composer Heino Eller, Arvo Pärt’s musical mentor. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

While studying, Pärt worked as a recording engineer with Estonian Radio, and this continued for some time into his compositional career.

His early works venture into a variety of 20th-century musical genres, including neo-Romanticism, neoclassicism and collage technique. Serialism, another musical interest, was the antithesis of Socialist Realism and a style highly unpopular in the USSR.

Pärt’s orchestral composition Nekrolog (1960), the first piece of serialist music written in Estonia, earned him recognition in the West and official rebuke at home.

Further ideological tension emerged with his last collage piece Credo (1968) – a methodical distortion of JS Bach’s famous C major Prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier. This stemmed not so much from musical contention, but from his avowal of Christianity under the militantly atheistic Soviet regime. The work was promptly banned in the USSR.

The Santa Maria della Vittoria pipe organ in Rome, Italy. Lawrence OP/flickr, CC BY

Pärt had reached something of a professional and musical deadlock. When the “early music” movement – which sought to revive ancient music and perform it in “period” manner – belatedly spread to the Soviet Union, he turned his attention toward studying music of the distant past.

For many Soviet composers of the 1960s, these ancient repertoires offered an outlet for coded expressions of religious sentiment, given their usual association with rituals and liturgies.

Pärt’s Symphony No. 3 (1971), the only work he finished between 1968 and 1976, was clearly influenced by earlier musical traditions. It featured the medieval double-leading-tone cadence, the “Landini sixth” of the 14th century and treated plainsong-like melodies in cantus firmus.

This extended period of study culminated in his short piano work Für Alina (1976) and with it the emergence of his innovative tonal technique “tintinnabuli”.

The tintinnabuli method is based on the interplay between two voices in a manner reminiscent of oblique organum, a form of medieval polyphony used to avoid the tritone interval deemed “dangerous” by medieval clerics.

The mostly step-wise movement of one melody around a central pitch is juxtaposed with the simultaneous sounding of the notes of the tonic triad by a second “tintinnabuli” melody, resulting in rich yet patently clean, bell-like sonorities with obvious religious symbolism.

From the late 1970s onward, he produced at least fifteen compositions which laid the foundations for this new style. The best known of these works include Cantus in Memoriam of Benjamin Britten, Fratres and Tabula Rasa, all from 1977.

These works helped establish his international reputation, especially in the West.

Yet Soviet authorities remained unreceptive. After extended negotiations Pärt was permitted to emigrate in 1980, first to Vienna and then to Berlin, where he settled. He now divides his time between Berlin and Tallinn.

US composer Philip Glass. Sean Masterson/AAP

Shortly after emigrating, Pärt completed his St John Passion (1982), arguably the paradigmatic tintinnabular work.

The gradual unfolding of Pärt’s tonal vocabulary in such austere and raw textures saw him unwittingly arrive at a similar musical destination to minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Incidentally, both Reich and Glass also found their way to some form of religious faith.

While now viewed as a modern mystic (conferences have been held connecting his music to contemporary spirituality), Pärt’s early reputation was that of a radical whose religious agitations had no place behind the Iron Curtain.

Choral music dominates his vocal output, and the instrumental works include four symphonies and numerous other works for string orchestra, various chamber ensembles and piano.

His music has also teetered toward the mainstream, with performances of his music winning two Grammys for Best Choral Performance, by Tõnu Kaljuste (2014 for Adam’s Lament) and Pärt’s most devoted exponent, Paul Hillier (2007 for Da Pacem).

Pärt’s music is a hard-won victory indeed – like a gem formed after years of intense pressure – and for those seeking a little stillness, it could be just what the doctor ordered.

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