Happy Birthday, Arvo Pärt


Arvo Pärt (born 11 September 1935) is an Estonian composer of classical and sacred music. Since the late 1970s, Pärt has worked in a minimalist style that employs his self-invented compositional technique, tintinnabuli. His music is in part inspired by Gregorian chant.

His earliest works, mostly for piano, are neo-classical in style. In 1962 his children’s cantata Meie aed (‘Our Garden’) received joint first prize at the All-Union Young Composers’ Competition in Moscow. At this time he was studying serial composition from the few scores and textbooks that had found their way into the Soviet Union; the first of his works to use serial technique was the orchestral Nekrolog. This path earned him official rebuke, though he nevertheless continued to apply serial procedures throughout the 1960s. Perpetuum mobile (1963) applies serial technique to pitch, duration and rhythm throughout, while the First Symphony (1963–4) explores canonic procedures and is deservedly subtitled ‘Polyphonic’. Both works are related through the use of different versions of the same all-interval row. In 1964 Pärt revealed his growing interest in J.S. Bach, employing rows that incorporate the B–A–C–H motif and writing often in imitation of the Baroque style. The works Pro et contra and the Second Symphony (both 1966) also make significant use of collage and frequently set in opposition the perceived turmoil of Modernist dissonance against the calm order of tonal (neo-Baroque) consonance. These processes receive their most climactic treatment in Credo (1968), a pivotal work of Pärt’s career; here the tonal world of Bach’s C major prelude from book 1 of Das Wohltemperierte Clavier is slowly distorted through application of a chain of 5ths used as a 12-note row. Ultimately, the tonal impression dominates, but this work provoked an official scandal – not for its musical language but for its avowal of Christianity.

After Credo Pärt reached an impasse both musically and professionally. For several years (from 1968) he concentrated on exploring tonal monody and simple two-part counterpoint in exercises inspired by his studies of early music and Gregorian chant. During this period he produced two works (Laul armastatule – subsequently withdrawn – and the Third Symphony) which reveal the strength of these preoccupations. It was only in 1976, however, that he began to compose fluidly again, this time using a tonal technique of his own creation which he calls ‘tintinnabuli’ (after the bell-like resemblance of notes in a triad). The first piece to be written in this new style was the short piano solo Für Alina.

part2A two-part homophonic texture forms the basis of tintinnabuli technique: a melodic voice moves mostly by step around a central pitch (often but not always the tonic), and the tintinnabuli voice sounds the notes of the tonic triad. The relationship between these two voices follows a predetermined scheme (which varies in detail from work to work) and is never haphazard. Furthermore, the entire structure of a tintinnabuli work is predetermined either by some numerical pattern or by the syntax and prosody of a chosen text. Very often these two ideals are combined.

part3Typically, the melodic voice part can be reduced to ascending or descending modes, to or from a central pitch. To this the tintinnabuli voice is fitted note by note, either by providing the pitch in the triad that is nearest to the melodic voice pitch (1st position), or the pitch that is nearest but one (2nd position). The tintinnabuli pitches may be applied above or below the pitches of the melodic voice, or alternate between these.

In 1976–7 Pärt laid the foundations of this new style and composed several of the works that would help to establish his international reputation – Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, Fratres, Summa and Tabula Rasa. However, his position as a composer of overtly religious music in an austere and seemingly simple tonal style endeared him neither to the Soviet authorities nor to the academic establishment, and the development of his career as a composer inside the Soviet Union was continuously being frustrated. In 1980 he and his family emigrated, first to Vienna and then to Berlin. He took with him sketches of the St John Passion, which was completed in 1982 and has become the quintessential work of the tintinnabuli part4style. A strict, through-composed setting of the text, the Passion employs the tintinnabuli techniques described above but using a number of interconnected triads and pitch centres so that the whole work draws upon three sets of overlapping 5ths: D–A–E–B. The work lasts approximately 70 minutes, and comprises a short introduction (exordium) and conclusion flanking the main narrative section of the text. The Evangelist is represented by an SATB quartet and four instruments; the part of Christ is sung by a bass solo and that of Pilate by a tenor. Both solo voices are accompanied by the organ, as is the choir, who sing the remaining roles and also represent the turba. The words are set in a rhythmic scheme which employs three relative note values – short, medium and long – operating at three different speeds.

The majority of Pärt’s works composed after 1980 are for chorus or small vocal ensemble; his choice of texts has ranged from Latin (which predominated at first) to German, Church Slavonic, Spanish, Italian and English. Among the larger works mention should be made of Te Deum which invokes – but does not in fact use – Gregorian chant; Stabat mater, in essence an extended piece of chamber music for double trio (three strings and three voices); Miserere which incorporates an earlier setting (here revised) of the Dies irae sequence; two a cappella choral works, the (Latin) Magnificat and the (German) Seven Magnificat Antiphons; and Litany (1994), the first work since the Third Symphony to employ something approaching a full orchestra; and Kanon Pokajanen, a large-scale a cappella setting of Russian Orthodox texts.

In later works, the underlying tintinnabuli concept has remained largely unchanged, though it has been subject to various technical refinements. The use of speech patterns to determine melodic contours and the combination of enharmonically related triads and chromatically inflected scales have enriched Pärt’s musical vocabulary; later choral works have also shown a tendency to divide text and music more equally among vocal parts, creating a more fluid texture. (Paul D. Hillier. “Pärt, Arvo.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 11 Sep. 2015.)

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