Pärt, Arvo (b1935)
© Tina Foster

Arvo Pärt

born: 11 September 1935
country: Estonia

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 to reveal a truly impassioned, dramatic aspect to the composer’s musical personality.

from notes by Meurig Bowen © 1998

Albums

Pärt, Reich & Davies: Cantus
Studio Master: CKD432Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Pärt: Berliner Messe & Magnificat
CDH55408Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Pärt: Choral Music
Studio Master: CDA68056Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Pärt: Triodion & other choral works
CDA67375
Pärt: Triodion & other choral works
CDA30013Hyperion 30th Anniversary series
A Christmas Present from Polyphony
NOEL2Super-budget price sampler — Download only
Christmas with The King's Singers
SIGCD502Download only
Davies, Pärt & Reich: Cantus
Studio Master: CKD432Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Dreamland
HYP41Super-budget price sampler
Ikon, Vol. 1
CDA66928
Reich, Davies & Pärt: Cantus
Studio Master: CKD432Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Hyperion monthly sampler – August 2014
FREE DOWNLOADHYP201408Download-only monthly sampler
Hyperion monthly sampler – October 2014
FREE DOWNLOADHYP201410Download-only monthly sampler

Complete works available for download

… which was the son of …Polyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Alleluia-TropusPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Annum per AnnumAndrew Lucas (organ)
Berliner MessePolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor), Andrew Lucas (organ)
Bogoroditse Devo 'Rejoice, O virgin'The King's Singers
Cantus in memoriam of Benjamin BrittenKuniko Kato (percussion)
Da pacem, DominePolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
De profundisPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor), Andrew Lucas (organ), Chris Guy (percussion)
Dopo la vittoriaPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
FratresKuniko Kato (percussion)
Für AlinaKuniko Kato (percussion)
I am the true vinePolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Littlemore TractusPolyphony, Christopher Bowers-Broadbent (organ), Stephen Layton (conductor)
MagnificatHolst Singers, Stephen Layton (conductor)
MagnificatPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor), Rachel Elliott (soprano)
Morning starPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
My heart's in the highlandsDavid James (countertenor), Christopher Bowers-Broadbent (organ)
Nunc dimittisPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Peace upon you, JerusalemPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Salve reginaPolyphony, Christopher Bowers-Broadbent (organ), Stephen Layton (conductor)
Seven Magnificat-AntiphonsPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
SolfeggioPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Spiegel im SpiegelKuniko Kato (percussion)
SummaPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
The BeatitudesPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor), Andrew Lucas (organ)
The deer's cryPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
The woman with the alabaster boxPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Tribute to CaesarPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor), Richard Bannan (bass)
TriodionPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
VirgencitaPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Zwei BeterPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor), Rachel Ambrose Evans (soprano)

Alphabetical listing of all musical works

… which was the son of … (Pärt)
A rule of faith and a model of meekness  
Alleluia-Tropus (Pärt)
And Jesus himself began to be  
And they brought unto him a penny  
Annum per Annum (Pärt)
Berliner Messe (Pärt)
Bogoroditse Devo 'Rejoice, O virgin' (Pärt)
Cantus in memoriam of Benjamin Britten (Pärt/Kato)
Christ is the morning star  
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me  
Credo in unum Deum  
Da pacem, Domine (Pärt)
De profundis (Pärt)
do re mi fa so la si …  
Dopo la vittoria (Pärt)
Fratres (Pärt/Kato)
Für Alina (Pärt/Kato)
Glory to the Father  
I am the true vine (Pärt)
I rejoiced that they said to me  
In the name of the Father  
Introduction  
Jesus sprach zu einigen  
Kanon Pokajanen (Pärt)
Littlemore Tractus (Pärt)
Magnificat (Pärt)
Memento  
Morning star (Pärt)
My heart's in the highlands (Pärt)
Now when Jesus was in Bethany  
Nunc dimittis (Pärt)
O Adonai  
O Immanuel  
O König aller Völker  
O Morgenstern  
O Schlüssel Davids  
O Spross aus Isais Wurzel  
O Weisheit  
Peace upon you, Jerusalem (Pärt)
Pomiluy mya, Bozhe, pomiluy mya  
Salve regina (Pärt)
Seven Magnificat-Antiphons (Pärt)
Solfeggio (Pärt)
Spiegel im Spiegel (Pärt/Kato)
Summa (Pärt)
The Beatitudes (Pärt)
The deer's cry (Pärt)
The woman with the alabaster box (Pärt)
Then went the Pharisees  
Tribute to Caesar (Pärt)
Triodion (Pärt)
Unto the Birth-giver of God  
Verily I say unto you  
Virgencita (Pärt)
We do homage to Thy pure image  
Why trouble ye the woman?  
Zwei Beter (Pärt)