Here is some of the most spiritually uplifting music of our generation, sung by that most virtuosic of choirs, Polyphony. Arvo Pärt (paralleled in England by John Tavener) has succeeded in capturing the attention of a broad public through his consummate ability to weave a sense of inevitable power into music of fundamental simplicity.
The impressive Berlin Mass which opens the disc was written in 1990, the Credo being a fascinating major-key reworking of the earlier minor-mode Summa; very much an expression of joy at the lifting of the Soviet embargo on ‘sacred’ music in Estonia. Annum per Annum is a monumental work for solo organ and is here performed on the organ of St Paul’s Cathedral: a thoroughly exhilarating experience. The disc ends with the masterpiece De profundis. This most powerful of texts draws from Pärt an inexorable momentum from a beginning almost out of nothing to a devastating climax.
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Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers—in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning … Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a moment of silence comforts me. I work with very few elements—with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials—with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. (Arvo Pärt)
With the extraordinary diversity of musical styles created this century, a labelling system has necessarily evolved to keep track of them all—from neo-classical, post-modern, serial and the ‘new complexity’, to more idiosyncratic, less objective classifications such as the ‘English Cowpat School’ and ‘squeaky gate’. On the great musical supermarket shelf Arvo Pärt is broadly known as a ‘mystic minimalist’. This may be a crass description, as all neat pigeon-holes tend inevitably to be, but it is as good a starting point as any for describing Pärt’s output in the 1980s and 90s.
It is significant that his two other mystic minimalist shelfmates during this period were John Tavener and Henryk Górecki, making a threesome whose stars arguably shone more brightly, in commercial terms at least, than any other living composers of the time (but for the other more secular minimalists Reich, Glass, Nyman and Adams). Tavener and Górecki experienced similar stylistic journeys too, reaching their final spare, austere vernacular from radically different, avant-garde starting points: the young Tavener, wacky, experimental, a hippy child of the 1960s who rubbed shoulders with The Beatles; and Górecki, a man whose early scores were characterized by monumental gesture, cacophony and clusters.
The tale of Pärt’s stylistic transformation, in its oversimplified form, is beguiling and glamorous: Estonia’s enfant terrible produces the country’s first 12-tone score in 1960, proceeds to write a number of shocking, dissonant pieces until 1968, then goes silent for eight years, and emerges with a confoundingly new musical voice which is exquisitely subtle, consonant, and resonates with the sound-world and technique of the medieval and Renaissance masters. For those relieved by this shift from the avant-garde to the quasi-ancient, from fragmented gesturing to soothing introspection, the most immediate analogy must be that of the caterpillar and the butterfly, the chrysalis being Pärt’s years of silence.
Of course, time and popular imagination have artificially manufactured this account of creative metamorphosis. Pärt did in fact write a major work, the Third Symphony, in 1971—during the fabled ‘silence’—and it is a crucial, transitional piece which hints strongly at the style to come, with its pervasive pseudo-medievalism and polyphonic grandeur. And whilst if you compare his early work to the post-1976 ‘tintinnabulist’ style the difference will seem as extreme as viewing a Gothic cathedral alongside an edifice of Le Corbusier, it is wrong to imagine that the composer underwent a complete switch of sensibility between the two creative periods. Pärt’s serious, solemn nature is very much present in both, and one can discern just as much sense of dramatic control, of ebb and flow, in the modernist collages of the 1960s as in the best scores of later years. The musical means may be worlds apart, but the temperament and spirit of the man remain the same.
Another part of the dressed-up version of Pärt’s lifepath is that he was only ‘discovered’ relatively late on, rescued from an Eastern-bloc obscurity by an enlightened, receptive West. It is a romantic, patronizing notion which fits well with the chrysalis analogy. But only in the broad, mega-commercial sense is it true.
Pärt studied at the Tallinn Conservatorium from the late-fifties until 1963, and even before graduating won first prize in the Pan-Soviet Union Young Composers’ Competition with a children’s cantata and oratorio. The extraordinarily compact essay in serial, palindromic layering Perpetuum mobile, written in 1964 and dedicated to Luigi Nono, was presented successfully at numerous new-music festivals around Europe at that time. And the Cello Concerto, subtitled ‘Pro et Contra’, was commissioned by Rostropovich no less—surely firm proof that the young, modernist Pärt was no obscure recluse from the grim backwaters of eastern Europe.
The austerity and disarming simplicity of Pärt’s tintinnabulist works have led to a common criticism that this music is naive and washed-out: ‘It’s all the same, just a sea of A minor triads and precious silence’, one hears; or, as The New Yorker recently wrote, ‘Aural pillows that you can sink into’ (ie, not far removed from that amoebic sludge in sound’s evolution which is Elevator Music). Through careful selection of Pärt’s choral output, avoiding the more static, etiolated works, and through robust performances of wide emotional range, it is hoped that such unflattering preconceptions will be adjusted by this recording to reveal a truly impassioned, dramatic aspect to the composer’s musical personality.
What could be more impassioned and dramatic in late-twentieth-century music than the centrally placed ‘O Schlüssel Davids’ in the Seven Magnificat Antiphons, with its ecstatically pleading multiple layers of closely packed harmony? Or the fortissimo exclamation of the seventh antiphon—‘O Emmanuel, our king and teacher’—where repeated blocks of A major are transfigured by simply-got suspensions in the middle parts?
It is ultimately Pärt’s finest achievement that he can deliver intense, direct, sometimes sensual emotion with the barest and simplest of materials—perhaps analogous to the Norman and early-Gothic church architecture for which he exhibits such affinity. Stone and glass; structure and space; eloquence through simplicity. Such eloquence and simplicity shine through in all this tintinnabulist work, where the music’s procedures essentially comprise an extravagantly pure union of the (mostly) diatonic scale and arpeggio, and always-resourceful manoeuvrings of the triad. The Agnus Dei of the Berlin Mass, for example, features alternating vocal strands which are bleak on paper, yet sensual and yielding in performance. And its conclusion, through the simplest of devices, is particularly warm; paired upper and lower voices sing the same music but a crotchet apart, creating the serene collisions and harmonic expressivity for which Pärt seems to have the subtlest of ears. (A similar device occurs in John Tavener’s extraordinary Hymn to the Mother of God, though the two choirs here are further temporally separated.)
And alongside the drama and awesome climax of some of this album’s music is Pärt’s exquisite sense of control and restraint. Texts like the Magnificat or Sanctus—so many times set by his predecessors in a wave of unbounded joy—acquire a more muted sense of wonderment in Pärt’s world: the slightly chilled, restrained ecstasy of the former, with the pensive presence of a C pedal throughout; the sombre processional of the latter, sopranos absent, and with no upbeat transition into the Hosanna.
If Pärt has sidestepped conventionality in the setting of some texts, he is closer to the norm in a work such as De profundis. With a certain body of precedent from earlier times for musical pictorialism, the deep, furry tones of contra-bass voices emerge ‘de profundis’. The booming, thumping intercessions of the bass drum serve perhaps as a primeval heartbeat. And, ever so gradually, the music builds in texture and dynamic level to a climax of awesome proportions, matching the Psalmist’s journey from anguish and despair to a firm hope of redemption. It is a work of perfect structure and immaculately achieved expression.
Annum per Annum
Seven Magnificat Antiphons
Meurig Bowen © 1998