Musical Quietude: Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel

We cannot grasp music intellectually, but we can let ourselves be touched by it.  ~ David Steindl-Rast, OSB

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart (Lk 2.19).

HELP WANTED: Cello player.

Viola would suffice, but I’d prefer a cello—doesn’t it have a more mellow, deeper tone? Plus, I like how the cello is balanced on that single stilt—the “endpin,” as it were—which seems ripe for metaphorical reaping if you ask me.


So, anyway, yes, cello—for a single, idiosyncratic performance of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (1978). You know it, don’t you? I think it’s the Estonian composer’s most famous work, and it has appeared in numerous feature films and documentaries. It’s a meditative duet for piano and, well, some other instrument (like yours) reflecting what Pärt calls his tintinnabuli (“bell-like”) style: Triads and triads, plain and unadorned, always moving up, over and over the piano keys, while the ethereal instrumental melody seems to aimlessly float, like a drifting punt—so ordinary, so quiet, what’s the big deal? It’s how I imagine kneading dough would be: flattening the mound, then bending and pushing it back together, tossing in extra flour here and there, bending, pushing, folding and unfolding, waiting. A gentle tedium.

Maybe it’s obvious that I know little about kneading dough, but I’ve heard it can be very therapeutic and calming, and certainly that’s the effect of Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel. In a world of distraction and panicky busyness, the piece’s stark progression is arresting, and it clears the deck if you give it a chance. You rest in its shelter; the pelting ferocity of traffic and money, relational missteps and personal upheavals, are shut out for a spell. There’s you and the triads and the moody melody, rolling and balancing, you and a wintry landscape of sound, and God.

The German title means something close to “mirror within a mirror,” so Pärt’s intention clearly was to evoke just such a self-reflective response—to draw the listener into a pensive repose that could remain open, even perpetually. Anyway, it’s what happened to me when I first encountered it as the musical centerpiece of HBO’s 2001 production of Wit—Margaret Edson’s extraordinary play about a demanding academic, Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson), who is stricken with ovarian cancer. The drama revolves around Vivian’s afflictions—physical, emotional, and spiritual—and her desperate seizing of redemption even as life and grace seem to be fading away.

I’ve shown that film to my nursing students year after year for close to a decade now, and so I’ve repeatedly wrestled through the story’s images accompanied by Pärt’s music. In fact, it’s like another character in the drama, with its own cues and stage directions. The sparse intonation is all wrapped up with mortality for me—death in general, a constant in healthcare (whether it’s admitted or not), and the prospect of my own death (eventually) in particular. As a result, every time I hear Spiegel im Spiegel, it conjures up big issues, final questions—although not in so many words. “It was as though the music itself,” is how artist Mary Husted put it, “was saying everything I was wanting and hoping to say.”

Since I’ve been gripped by this stirring piece for so long, it occurred to me that I’d like to occupy it more fully, more intentionally. Just downloading it to some MP3 gizmo or other didn’t seem adequate. I wanted to dwell in it beyond just having it on a CD or computer file somewhere, to absorb it, and even be absorbed by it, which made me think I’d actually have to play it—to bring it to life myself, you see, to let it be filtered through my own experience instead of coloring it from the outside.

Such were my thoughts one day last month when Spiegel im Spiegel popped up on Pandora just before my wife inquired about Christmas gifts. “What would you like besides books?” Nancy asked—and it came to me in a flash. “Sheet music,” I blurted out. “For this piece.” It was curious request, even for me, so I followed up by sending her a Google link—and sure enough, it appeared under the tree from my sister-in-law. “Thanks,” I told her. “This is really great.”

“Of course—glad to get you something you really wanted,” was her response. “But I didn’t know you played piano.”

Well, I don’t, really, and that’s one dimension of my want ad’s “idiosyncratic” reference: You must be willing to work with an rank amateur…. I took lessons as a child, and then some music theory for a time in college, but not much piano work since. Can you be patient with a musical dabbler, and one who’s likely to break down in tears periodically, both in practice and performance?

Ah, the performance—the other side of my want ad’s idiosyncrasy: …for little if any compensation. As far as venue, I’m thinking a street corner somewhere, maybe a subway platform—a drop-in center perhaps? We could put out a hat in case anyone wanted to drop a coin or two, but I’m not expecting much—it’s not the type of music that elicits attention, let alone financial remuneration. In any case, we’d be performing not for money, but to exorcise ghosts and explore … what? This music—this haunting, piercing melody, this parched and peaceful desert of tonal stillness that demands the listener to rest, stop, focus, let go. “There isn’t a harsh moment, there isn’t a moment of conflict or a moment of drama in Spiegel im Spiegel,” says concert violinist Tasmin Little. “It is tranquil from start to finish.”

What’s the point? Think of it as an eccentric extravagance and a touchpoint of gracea moment of epiphany that you’d help ignite and simultaneously behold. It might be that others who are present would be moved, but no matter if they’re not. Together we can give Pärt’s vision voice in that particular time and place—God will hear, and that’s reason enough.

So, can you do it? Would you?

Richard Becker


Richard Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He blogs regularly at God-Haunted Lunatic.

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