Arvo Pärt

Born 11 September 1935.
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Arvo Part Choral Music

Stephen Johnson investigates Part's approach to writing sacred choral music.

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One of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music, and also among the most performed and recorded, the Estonian-born composer Arvo Pärt studied composition at the Tallinn Conservatory under the influential teacher Heino Eller. Although Pärt’s current standing rests almost exclusively on the works he has composed since the unveiling of the ‘tintinnabuli’ style in 1976, announced by the crystalline beauty of the piano miniature Für Alina, he had already become something of an enfant terrible in Soviet musical circles during the 1960s.

His Nekrolog (1960) for orchestra caused a scandal by being the first Estonian work to employ serialism, incurring the wrath of no less a person than Tikhon Khrennikov, the all-powerful head of the Soviet Composers’ Union. Using other avant-garde techniques such as pointillism and aleatoricism, Pärt wrote a series of experimental works including Perpetuum mobile (1963), Symphony No. 1 (1964), Diagrams (1964) and Musica sillabica (1964).

Having become dissatisfied with serial technique, however, Pärt searched for another means of furthering his musical development, resulting in his incorporation of ‘borrowed’ tonal gestures (the music of J. S. Bach proving to be of particular importance) and the adoption of Baroque and Classical forms in works such as the brief Quintettino (1964), Collage on B–A–C–H (1964) and the cello concerto Pro et contra (1966). After the remarkable Credo (1968), which represented both the culmination of his early style and the first work in which he set a religious text, Pärt fell silent for a number of years.

Following a chance encounter with the root of Western music, plainchant, Pärt was creatively and spiritually reborn. He became engrossed in a study of medieval and Renaissance music and converted to the Russian Orthodox Church (Pärt was originally Lutheran). Using plainchant and other early music as his source, he then underwent a radical change of style, paring down and reconstructing both his musical ideas and technique. It was not until 1976 that he intuitively discovered his new tintinnabuli style, at the core of which was a two-part unit: a generally stepwise ‘melodic’ line accompanied by a triadic or tintinnabuli harmony (the Latin word tintinnabulum literally means ‘small bell’).

An outpouring of works followed, including Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, Tabula rasa and Fratres, three of the most enduring works of the new style, all dating from 1977 and each possessing its own inner, self-contained concept and unique sound-world. The acme of the style, its most perfect realisation, came with the transcendent Passio (St John Passion) (1982), with further new traits introduced in subsequent sacred works such as the Te Deum (1984–5, rev. 1992), Stabat mater (1985), Miserere (1989), Litany (1994, rev. 1996) and the imposing Kanon Pokajanen (1997). More recent works such as The Deer’s Cry (2007) and Symphony No. 4, ‘Los Angeles’ (2008) have served to illustrate the extreme flexibility of the tintinnabuli style and its capacity to absorb new textural and harmonic approaches.

From avant-garde density to luminous simplicity, Pärt’s has been a constantly fascinating musical journey. Having left the Soviet Union in 1980, the composer returned to Estonia around the turn of the century. His many awards include the Contemporary Music Award at the 2003 Classical Brits, Musical America’s Composer of the Year Award in 2005 and the 2008 Sonning Music Prize.

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BBC Reviews

  1. Review of Symphony No.4 / Fragments from Kanon Pokajanen

    Symphony No.4 / Fragments from Kanon Pokajanen 2010

    Reviewed by Charlotte Gardner
    Each movement has its own character, motifs binding constituents into a wonderful whole.
  2. Review of Lamentate

    Lamentate 2005

    Reviewed by Andrew McGregor
    Two new works by the Estonian master - the Hilliard Ensemble sing a prayer for peace,...
  3. Review of Triodion

    Triodion 2003

    Reviewed by Matthew Shorter
    Arvo Pärt's new disc of choral music conveys a quiet and cumulative power, given...
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