As a devout Russian Orthodox and an exile from Communist Russia in the 1970s, Arvo Pärt composes music that contains a unique dialogue between supernatural hope and the utter darkness and ugliness of postmodernity. Many of his pieces represent a unique blending of tradition and novelty, but they are entirely suffused with deeply religious devotion and Christian sensitivity.
Any Catholic interested in a revival of the arts and questions relating to their place and expression in the face of modernity should discover Arvo Pärt, perhaps the most famous contemporary composer of “classical” music even in the secular world of the arts.
Born in central Estonia in 1935, Pärt’s musical education and experimentation began while his age was still in the single digits. He attended the Estonian Conservatory of Music in Tallinn, where he graduated in 1963. In his student days, and throughout the 1960s, Pärt worked as a sound producer for public radio, as well as writing music for film and stage.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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But the Soviet regime which ruled Estonia at the time strictly censored modern music. Not only were religious themes banned from compositions, but composers were expected to toe the line in a bombastic, neo-classical style that the Soviets believed matched their philosophy. Modern innovations such as atonalism were frowned upon as subversive to communist authority because they questioned the established order and pointed toward existential and transcendental questions incompatible with communistic materialism. The innovations of other modern composers also attracted the eyes of the U.S.S.R. artist outside of the Iron Curtain…what if they became disillusioned with the Soviet regime? The barrier with the rest of the world was thinner in Estonia, on the edge of the red empire.
In 1968, Pärt composed “Credo,” his first explicitly religious piece, which led to his unofficial censure in the communist concert halls. Pärt then entered a personal and creative crisis. Known as his “great silence,” Pärt composed almost nothing for nearly a decade; in the midst of his “silence” he converted from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy.
Pärt immersed himself in the study of Gregorian Chant, Polyphony, and other early music. Out of his silence, conversion, and contact with these other forms of music, Pärt found a new voice for himself by creating a new style and technique of composition known as tintinnabuli. Pärt eventually immigrated to Germany where he was freer to pursue composition based on his faith-life, only returning to Estonia after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Tintinnabuli describes a method of composing in two or more voices, based upon an octatonic scale, in which one voice moves in 3rd and 4ths and the other stepwise (from one note to the next adjacent note). The name derives from Pärt’s description of this music as “bell-like.” The piece in which Pärt “discovered” his new style is one of his most famous: “Für Alina,” a simple and lyrical piano piece.
Much of Pärt’s music could be called “minimalist”; yet for Pärt this does not have the nihilistic or anti-beauty connotation that it might for other modern composers. While often very dissonant, Pärt’s dissonances arise in different contexts and for different reasons than those of atonal composers. Nearly all of Pärt’s music is deeply Christian. He draws on a multitude of Christian musical traditions, setting traditional liturgical texts in Greek, Church Slavonic, Latin, or vernaculars like German and English. Drawing on both Latin and Byzantine liturgical traditions, Pärt sometimes composes Masses with the Western Mass parts while at other times composing in a pseudo-Byzantine style reminiscent of Rachmaninoff.
Arvo Pärt’s “De Profundis,” was written in 1980. An utterly mysterious and moving example of what I might call his trick of composing “luminous darkness,” the piece is scored for four men’s voices, organ, and percussion. The deep, growling notes of the organ underpin the plodding plea which rises from the male voices. Over and over again the notes rise and fall, step by step, as the soul in anguish and darkness tries to formulate a prayer. This is a piece which I personally discovered in a time of intense confusion and darkness in my own life; it resonated instantly. I think that its play of light and darkness may only be intelligible to those who have, like Pärt, experienced exile and anguish in their search for God.
In many ways similar to his “De Profundis,” Pärt’s entirely instrumental “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten” is also a piece which seeks to bring beauty out of dissonance. This piece is heart blood, dripping out, and beautiful in spite of the anguish. Pärt’s dissonance and “ugliness” is incarnational; it is the horror of the Passion which will end in the consonance of the Resurrection (or at least the peace of the sepulcher) not the horror of despair.
Two other very popular Pärt pieces are his “The Beatitudes” and “Magnificat.” The first is set in English, scored for choir and organ. Silky, quiet chords with soft dissonances open a vista onto consolation. Like “De Profundis,” it builds in a repetitive fashion on the words of each of the beatitudes. Suddenly breaking free of the pattern when Our Lord speaks of being persecuted for His name’s sake, it finally climaxes on the “Amen” before the organ breaks free in a cascade of arpeggios.
The “Magnificat” is a gentle choral piece, evidently taking inspiration from the Gregorian Chant tradition as it alternates between male and female voices in psalm-tone like phrases. The power of simplicity is fully evidenced in Pärt’s simple yet breathtaking chords as he masterfully builds layer on layer, peaking on phrases like “His mercy is for all generations” or “receiving His servant Israel.” His use of dissonance and jarring music phrases only highlight the harmonies more strongly.
Arvo Pärt is a composer worth making time for, even if at first you don’t understand what he is trying to achieve. His music represents a glimmer of hope in the night of postmodernity. His regular popularity in concert halls around the world is a testimony to the transcendent power of his music, which is simultaneously both truly modern and timeless. His treatment of consistently religious texts reveals his commitment to spreading the Gospel in a quiet, gentle way, through the irresistible medium of beauty. Because he knows both ugliness and hope, Pärt can light our darkness, transforming blackness with mysteriously dark luminosity.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles explaining great works of music “in a nutshell.”