A listener hearing the music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt for the first time might be forgiven for thinking that he had inadvertently strayed into another century, or had at least been transported to a parallel universe in another galaxy. It has a beauty at once austere and sensuous that seems to be hardly of our time. Yet there can be little doubt that the revelation of his music has been one of the most important factors in the development of a new sensibility in recent music. The early work that he wrote in his native country would hardly prepare us for such an assertion. It was occasionally startling within the confines of Soviet music of the period – the use of serial and aleatoric techniques did cause some difficulty with the authorities from time to time. Even within his atonal music, however, he felt the pull of tonality. The Symphony no.2, for example, while being serial has sudden bursts of tonal material (periodic major chords, a melody and accompaniment in A minor) which are not justified by the tone row. He had difficulties of another kind ensuing from his inclusion of overtly religious references, especially in works such as Credo, with its words “I believe in Jesus Christ”. In this piece he incorporated, too, direct quotation from Bach – the first Prelude (in C major) from the Well-Tempered Klavier, associated with Gounod’s Ave Maria. On other occasions,however, his inclusion of quotation in a piece such as If Bach were a Bee-Keeper(1976) reveals a sense of humour surprising only for those who have not encountered Pärt personally.
Most of the music we now hear from Pärt comes from after he ended a lengthy period of compositional silence in 1976 with a tiny piano piece For Alina. In this piece he seems to have discovered a triadic principle that was to guide his future work. This technique he refers to as “tintinnabuli”, a word which evokes the pealing of bells, the bells’ complex but rich sonorous mass of overtones, the gradual unfolding of patterns implicit in the sound itself, and the idea of a sound that is simultaneously static and in flux. He had studied in depth mediaeval and renaissance music, especially Gregorian chant, the School of Notre Dame, Machaut, Ockeghem and Josquin, and he drew on his deep religious feeling and on his roots in the Eastern Orthodox Church. One of the earliest and most famous of his works in the new style, Fratres, was first performed by the Estonian ensemble of early music Hortus Musicus. A number of versions of this piece exist (some not authorised by Pärt, incidentally) and it was the recording of two versions on ECM Records after his move to the West, along with Cantus and the astonishingly subtle Tabula Rasa, that brought his work quite dramatically to the attention of a world-wide audience. Thereafter his cause has been furthered by subsequent recordings on ECM and above all by his close working relationship with the Hilliard Ensemble, an ensemble with the perfect aesthetic outlook for Pärt’s work combining, as they do, remarkable virtuosity in early music with a commitment to contemporary works. Much of his recent work has been vocal, setting religious texts, either unaccompanied or with a sparse but precisely calculated instrumentation. In Estonia he had worked as a composer of music for film and television as well as being recording director for Estonian radio. This has given him a clear sense of practicality allied to a rare aural sensitivity. His awareness of the most appropriate instrumental nuance can be heard in the perfect blending of vocal trio (soprano, male alto, tenor) and string trio in his exquisite Stabat Mater, in the use of prepared piano in the double violin concerto Tabula Rasa, and in the unobtrusive use of electric guitars in Miserere. In a way the very term “Tabula Rasa”, with its connotations of the mediaeval philosophical technique of ‘wiping the slate clean’ and building knowledge from nothing, is very apt when applied to Pärt’s musical thought. It can be a metaphor for the way in which his music emerges from silence, quite literally in several pieces, and for the way in which he returns to silence, step by step. Witness the slow stepwise descents at the end of Tabula Rasa; witness the agonisingly slow falling phrases passed from voice to voice, and instrument to instrument, at the end of Stabat Mater; and witness the dramatic ending of Cantus where the final fortissimo string chord stops to reveal the dying resonance of a solitary bell, struck but not noticed during the climax.
Moments like these,which in any other composer would only be moments, are essentially present throughout Pärt’s music, a music of haunting power and beauty that remains with the listener long after the last sound has died away. Believers and non-believers alike should thank God for such music.