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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 to reveal a truly impassioned, dramatic aspect to the composer’s musical personality.
from notes by Meurig Bowen © 1998