An Estonian composer, one of the "holy minimalists". ECM inaugurated
its New Series with a recording of his works; he fits in with their tradition
of accessible contemporary European art musics. Pärt's "holy" comes via
conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church (he once lived in a monastery), but he's often coy about discussing any religious significance to his work. Austere, contemplative music, rooted in the West's liturgical past, but not without the dissonances of modernism.

Arvo Pärt was born in Paide in 1935. He is the first Estonian composer to achieve universal recognition at the present time.
So far since 1960, Pärt's works can be divided into three distinct periods and genres. By 1960 he was composing within the twelve-note system (also called dodecaphony, which is in my opinion one of the worst sounding forms of musical composition, bleughh!). This phase then gave way to experimentation with collage techniques but this was not enough of a solution to the stylistic crisis he was having at the time. So Pärt then withdrew from composition to study the music of the Renaissance, as well as Gregorian chant and Russian Orthodox church music. When he eventually emerged from his self-imposed silence, his style had transformed so radically that his previous music was unrecognisable as the work of the same composer. And it is this music which I have heard and like.

These are some examples of pieces in Pärt's later musical style and mood:

Spiegel im Spiegel (1978)
This is my favourite piece by Arvo Pärt, it is very simple yet extremely beautiful. Written for violin and piano, it is constructed from the most extreme basic elements. Over a piano accompaniment of broken chords with bell-like notes in varying registers, the violin provides a sustained melody in which phrases of increasing length and range always return to the note A. Ok, so it doesn't sound much, but you can't explain music, one has to hear it to really know what it sounds like, and trust me, this one is lovely.

Tabula rasa (1977)
This piece is scored for two solo violins, strings and prepared piano. The first movement, "Ludus", begins with the two solo violins playing simultaneously at the extremes of their range, and as the movement unfolds, the melodic range is gradually extended yet; again, the actual sound of the music is simplicity itself. The second movement, "Silentium", is more typical of Pärt's current musical approach in its totally static, contemplative mood. The texture becomes increasingly lighter until the scoring is reduced to merely a solo cello and solo double bass.

If you ever listen to any of Arvo Pärt's later music (I don't know what his earlier compositions sound like, so therefore cannot comment on them) it will probably be quite unlike anything you've ever heard before, but this time, THAT is a good thing.

Estonian born composer, sometimes tagged minimalist, although he's also definitely been a modernist, a master of musical collage, and a dabbler in dodecaphonic music and other 20th century musical fads. Most of all, though, Arvo Pärt has developed a unique voice, making him one of our greatest contemporary composers.

Pärt was born 1935 in Paide, Estonia, and grew up in Tallinn. There he worked directing and composing music for TV and film, and studied composition under Heino Eller. His early work (late 1950s) was (to my mind) unexceptional Shostakovich-like Russian neoclassic.

In 1960, with his Necrolog, Pärt began experimenting with Schoenberg's dodecaphonic music, and serialism. One of his more expressive pieces in this (brief) period of strict "mathematical" formalism was Perpetuum Mobile.

In the mid-60s, Pärt gave up some of the excessive formalism, while still holding on to many of his favourite structures. Moving beyond the modernism of his first symphonies, Collage sur BACH (1964) is a short post-modernist collage of styles and voices, structured Bach-like around highly formal variations on a simple theme. The instrumentation and much of the theme are true Baroque, as is the tongue-in-cheek Toccata-Sarabande-Ricercar structure, but the rest is atonal and heavy with pretty scary chords. The four-note cluster rather vainly immortalised by Bach (notes which he would have read as B-A-C-H) repeats throughout the piece, in wildly differing roles (as a chord, as a melody, in reverse, etc). Once the concept of melody is decentralised, there are many new ways to disguise and repeat a basic theme. Pärt revealed himself as everything (or at least something) J.S. Bach would have been, if he were an atonal minimalist.

Later work (from the 1970s on) developed some medieval (especially Gregorian chant) influences, the multi-style collage (with references to other composers, or even entire excerpts from Bach, Tchaikovsky, and others), and eventually what he calls "tintinnabulation" (literally, ringing of bells). This was a watershed in Pärt's style. Two 1977 pieces are prime examples, in particular of this last technique: Fratres and the ingenious and moving Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (song in memory of Benjamin Britten). "Cantus" arises from silence by notes seemingly assembled out of thin air, gradually coming together. The entire piece is held together, from this start, by a bell-like ringing of a single chord (apparently this must always be a tonic triad). This is tinitinnabulation. Typically, one or two instruments or voices ring out this constant reminder, and the rest of the ensemble is free to spin wildly around this focus, or pursue its own independent theme (in "Cantus", the other parts seemingly ignore the tintinnabuli, intent on an inexorable descent in pitch). Incidentally, in the same year, he also composed his longest piece Tabula Rasa, a very modern concerto grosso for string orchestra, two violins, and prepared piano.

In Festina Lente (1988), Arvo Pärt achieved, to my mind, his (near) perfect style. As always, the melody appears gradually, unfelt, from long, disparate sonorous notes. Then, following Emperor Augustus's advice from the short work's title ("make haste slowly"), the melody is played out concurrently in fast tempo by the violins and slowly by the basses, with the violas keeping an intermediary pace. Again, at the core, a very neo-Baroque abstract construction.

Since the early 1990s, Pärt has become the constant source of a steady stream of frequently religiously-inspired, majestic, and often sorrowful pieces, uniquely identified by the ubiquitous mainstay of tintinnabulation (Summa, Miserere, Magnificat, another "BACH" piece). These seem to be striving for one perfect voice, discarding whatever does not or cannot serve that purpose; in Pärt's own words (re tintinnabulation): "The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity."

I have yet to node any of the specific pieces above. Excuse the broken links.

Some web resources:

  • contains a very complete discography, and an interesting-looking thesis on Pärt's style (I have not yet read it to any depth)

The best CD to introduce yourself to (post-1977) Pärt is probably BIS CD-834 (titled "Summa") with the Tapiola Sinfonietta. It contains several of the pieces mentioned above.

One of the amazing things about Arvo Pärt is his ability to synthesize strong early music influences with contemporary technique. The great composers of the renaissance wrote polyponic music that was complex in its construction, yet strikingly simple and beautiful in its presentation. Arvo Pärt flawlessly weaves musical complexity and intellectual craftsmanship with a hauntingly beautiful and strikingly simple musical sensibility. Pärt's music is beautiful in its honesty.

In fact, Pärt is a master of duality. His music is at once complex and simple, his influences ancient and new, and his effect intimate yet epic. It is a true testament to his ability that his music can seem to occupy such a grand scale, while simultaneously connecting in a direct and meaningful way to the listener.

I personally find Pärt to be my greatest influence as a composer. In my own choral works, I find myself emulating some of Pärt's technique. It is in his music that I find the deepest inspiration for my own.

The secret of Pärt's musical success may be summed in a single quote.

"I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me."

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