Reading Arvo Pärt

Context N°24

Scott McLaughlin

To borrow the title of John Gribbin’s book on chaos theory (Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity), there is a “deep simplicity” to both the sound and musical organization manifest in every aspect of Pärt’s pieces. This reference to chaos theory is not arbitrary; underlying the emotional weight of Pärt’s music is a system of numerical patterns and systems whose objectivity is, for the composer, an expression of purity that brings his music closer to God.
In November 2012, Dalkey Archive Press published Arvo Pärt in Conversation, an excellent new book of writings on Pärt’s work, including in-depth essays on his compositional technique, philosophy, and the use of his music in film, as well as an extensive interview with Pärt and his wife Nora by Enzo Restagno, from which most of the quotes in this article are taken.


Born in 1935 in Paide, Estonia, Pärt eschews the folk-derived nationalisms of many of his contemporaries in favour of a universalizing restraint that springs from his deep-seated religious beliefs. Living and composing under the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Pärt began his career as a resolutely modernist composer, eagerly absorbing the Western techniques and sounds that trickled under the Iron Curtain. His work slowly granted him national and international fame, which in itself became a source of tension with the local authorities, ultimately forcing him to abandon Estonia for Berlin, where freedom from the constraints of the Soviet censors allowed him to develop his music as he wished.
His fame in the West grew from this time, thanks to the support of the publishing house Universal Edition, the patronage of the iconoclastic ECM record label, which has so far released twelve CDs devoted to Pärt’s music, and the inclusion of his music in over twenty feature films. His work has also brought him many accolades and honors throughout the world, not least his election to the Pontifical Council for Culture by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011. In the last ten years his music has also started receiving the scholarly attention it deserves, both for its technical means and aesthetic concerns, as well as for Pärt’s “cult-like” appeal and popularity.

For those unfamiliar with Pärt’s music, the starting point must be the explosion of works from 1977, which arose out of his newly developed “tintinnabuli” system and ended several years of compositional silence. In these pieces there is a simplicity: the music mostly moves slowly in patterns and waves that, while always changing, have a quality of timeless inevitability. His Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten is nothing more than descending minor scales, but this most mundane of musical patterns is made achingly beautiful in the overlapping lines of Pärt’s arrangement. This musical material could not be more perfectly formed; the piece feels like a distillation of 200 years of tonal composition. The simplicity of Pärt’s music is beyond mere craft, rather it has an unforced quality, there is no rhetoric in his invention, the material and processes unfold as naturally as time itself, unbound to worldly concerns. Where his earlier, modernist, works are the sound of a composer almost frantically searching for a voice, the tintinnabuli works exhibit a serene and confident “arrival.”

Before 1976, Pärt’s music is highly variable in style, though with a little searching one can find the roots of the musical concerns that are so clear in his later work. Solfeggio (1963), for example, is a short choral work that foreshadows the contemplative nature of much of the later music. The piece is written using “only the white notes”—the C-major scale—but constructed using loose serial techniques to create, as Pärt scholar Paul Hillier describes them, “diatonic dissonances” that flow gracefully over each other. With serial techniques the composer sidesteps the gravity of tonality by distributing notes so that they are statistically equal, assigning numerical patterns that have no objective relationship with musical or tonal reasoning. Rather than choosing notes because they sound “good,” the composer uses a numerical pattern that he finds interesting, thus avoiding years of intuition that favours the musically “correct” over the musically novel.

Although Solfeggio sounds superficially like religious music, Pärt avoids potential spiritual overtones, which would have been unpalatable to the Soviet regime, by limiting the text to the syllables of the abstract and pure sol-fa. Five years later, Pärt would be more direct: his return to choral writing—Credo (1968) for chorus, piano, and orchestra—while very well received by the public at its first performance, scandalised the authorities with its setting of a Latin text, leading to persecution of the composer and interrogation by party activists as to the political aims of the piece.

It was not only Pärt’s religious ideals that created tension with the authorities, his musical language at this time also courted controversy. With Nekrolog (1960–61), the earliest piece Pärt himself considers more than simply student work, he became the first Estonian composer to employ serial techniques and was criticised by the censors for the work’s perceived “formalism.” While Pärt generally makes no claims to be an actively political composer, to compose as he wished was incompatible with Soviet ideology: he says of Nekrolog that “each single note is written as if with a fist clenched in protest.”
In other works from this period Pärt uses collage techniques, mixing abrasive and expressionistic styles with more familiar historical ones. There is a sense here of a young composer assured of his technique but not yet convinced of his compositional voice. The composer says, “if you have the feeling that you don’t have a skin of your own, you try to take strips of skin from all around you and apply them to yourself.” The Symphony no. 2 (1966) is turbulent and modernistic throughout, but closes with a sublimely restrained orchestration of Tchaikovsky’s “Sweet Day-Dream,” a piano piece for children. This opposition of musical styles is not intended to be kitsch or to ape the “grotesques” of contemporaries Schnittke or Shostakovich. Instead, Pärt is evoking childhood innocence, which is also referenced at the beginning of the symphony by a disturbing chorus of squeaky children’s toys. In Credo, a choral and orchestral development of Bach’s “Prelude in C” from the Well-Tempered Clavier is juxtaposed with expressionistic and violent orchestral writing, the oppositional elements existing, as Hillier describes them, “as linked forces, each containing the seeds of their opposite, with a continuum of gradual disintegration (and reconstitution) lying between them” (see Paul Hillier’s Arvo Pärt, p.58).
As Pärt’s composition matures across this period, his use of discontinuity in the collage technique is slowly replaced by a homogenization of musical materials as he moves from external manipulation to immersion and internalisation. By Symphony no. 3 (1971), Pärt’s discovery of Gregorian chant has resulted in a work that sounds modern and has echoes of the modular construction of collage-type pieces, but resounds with the stylistic tropes of early music. Here the composer is no longer employing quotation to construct antagonistic musical arguments, but instead completely absorbs the quoted music into his language, where ultimately it acts as a “catalyst” for the composer’s next phase of development, the tintinnabuli system.

The latin “tintinnabulum,” means the sound of small bells. Pärt named his new system the evocative “tintinnabuli” because it is built on the musical triad (the three pitches that make up the basic major or minor chords), which to Pärt sounds like a bell. There is a level of physical truth to his association. The triadic relationship is an aspect of any harmonic sound (such as the sound of a single flute or piano note, or the human singing voice), and this mathematical structure of pitch and timbre is partially why we find such sounds pleasing. When the notes of a triad are slowly repeated and permuted they create a sense of metastability—an ambiguous part-to-whole relationship as each note is sounded both as a single entity and as a separable but connected part. This is also a characteristic of the inharmonic sounds of bells, in which we can hear either individual harmonics or a single gestalt sound, depending on how we listen. There is a sense of harmonic stasis in the movement of the triadic pitches that can be contrasted with the sense of motion in melody. Pärt’s tintinnabuli system is the weaving together of two musical voices. The melodic voice (m-voice) is usually some sort of scale, with the attendant sense of melodic motion. To balance this there is the tintinnabuli voice (t-voice), which moves in step with the melodic voice but only uses the pitches of the triad and so has a static quality. Like the sense of visual motion that arises from the interlocked lines of a Bridget Riley painting, in tintinnabulation the voice of stasis and the voice of motion sound simultaneously to effect a mesmerizing sense of both movement and stillness.

Pärt says of the first tintinnabuli piece, Für Alina (1976), that “it’s not the tune that matters so much here, it’s the combination with this triad, it makes such a heartrending union. The soul yearns to sing it endlessly” (see the film 24 Preludes for a Fugue). Tintinnabuli is built from the blocks of traditional musical tonality that our ears find very familiar, yet its highly systematic construction relies on numerical patterns rather than emotional intuition. The seed of Pärt’s compositions is often a pattern or form, expressed numerically then composed into a musical analogue. For example, he describes the early work Perpetuum Mobile (1963) as rising “out of a mathematical and philosophical idea . . . intended to represent a spiral path that reaches the point where it started, albeit on another level.” The composer goes on to say,

At that time I was convinced that every mathematical formula could be translated into music. I thought that, in this way, one could create a more objective and purer kind of music. If I had succeeded by other means in creating a music free of emotion, I would have been able to distance myself from twelve-tone [serial] music.

One of his most popular tintinnabuli works, Fratres (1977), takes an almost crystalline form of nested musical patterns in which the same musical object is repeated in a slowly descending sequence while its inner cells simultaneously send new material outward: it is a ritual procession viewed through a kaleidoscope. The pattern is clear and simple, and reveals itself with a minimum of examination. However, the music is more than this repetition and folding, it carries an emotional weight that seems enriched rather than smothered by the abstraction of Pärt’s compositional process. Like John Cage, Pärt’s objectivity frees him from intuition and ego, and, as with Cage’s experimental music, the listener can have an emotional response without the composer actively constructing emotional “content”. Originating in his religious beliefs, this musical objectivity is central to Pärt’s composition, but is compositionally expressed as rule systems and processes.

Similarly, Pärt says the religious texts he sets “are bound to universal truths, so [. . .] they touch upon intimate truths, purity, beauty, that ideal core to which each human being is bound!” Extending this idea into the music he says: “in the beginning was the Word, [. . .] I believe that this concept should not only be conveyed in the text, but in every note of the music as well, in every thought, in every stone.”
As with the music, his textsetting uses processes, a system of “encoding” syllables to notes so that each word is a pattern in itself; the didactically titled Missa Syllabica (1977) is the first application of this technique. This process Pärt relates historically to the church tradition of intoning text, wherein each syllable and element of punctuation is given the same weight in delivery. This is very different from the more common method of text setting wherein the emotional semantics of the words shape the musical form. At the heart of Pärt’s musical thought is a drive towards transcendental objectivity and a striving for universal expression.

Since leaving Estonia in 1980, Pärt has steadily produced two or three new works each year. His increasing fame has led to bigger commissions, larger ensembles, and, most importantly, the freedom to work within timescales physically large enough to reflect the music’s profound sense of timelessness. Like the large canvasses of Mark Rothko, these later works evoke great depth with a minimum of material; they become an environment that envelops the listener in rich hues. Pärt’s method and muse allow infinite variety as he searches for “a universal music in which many dialects are blended together.”

Pärt’s cult status has not changed, but his audience has: it grows steadily because his work, like that of M. C. Escher, provokes a kind of human wonder that transcends simple artistic or musical taste. Pärt composes music that reflects the simple and direct truths of his religious faith, and such directness holds something for everyone who hears it, regardless of their own beliefs. Pärt has captured something fundamentally human about tolling bells and made from it a unique music that is greater than simple representation—it is a resonance of being.

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