The anniversary in question, in 1997, was the 1600th since the death of Saint Ambrosius, and so Pärt initially turned to the St Ambrosius hymns. ‘For some reason’, he writes, ‘they did not inspire me to begin the composition in question. Gradually I grew to believe I was not able to fulfil this particular task without writing a completely new Te Deum’ (Ambrosius is credited with the authorship of the Te Deum laudamus text). Pärt continues:
I was still looking for the adequate text when by chance I discovered an old church music encyclopaedia written in Russian. In it I found the story of Ambrosius and the scene of St Augustinus’ baptism, performed by Ambrosius. This description fascinated me, and my decision was made promptly … So I used the unaltered Russian text [translated into Italian] and took its first line to become the title of the my work. Its phrasing, dating from the year 1903, sounded to me almost like a poem in prose. The depiction itself has the form of a short two-person scenario, Ambrosius baptizing Augustinus. What I found particularly special and unusual in this story is the fact that Ambrosius, whilst the ceremony was in full swing, began to sing his Te Deum, and Augustinus joined in, easily continuing the chant as if he had known it for ever. And by singing antiphonally they finished off the Te Deum. I was fascinated and deeply influenced by this scene, with two giants of Western culture and Christianity full of spontaneous joy and inspiration, and now felt able to accomplish the commissioned work for the City of Milano in a relatively short time.
So this ‘piccolo cantata’—premiered in Milan’s San Simpliciano Basilica in December 1997 by the Swedish Radio Choir and Tõnu Kaljuste—honours St Ambrosius with a narrative lightness that is relatively unique for Pärt. In contrast with the broader homogeneous sweep of many of his choral settings, this work is sharply defined by sections closely related to the text. The pulsing, staccato briskness of the opening and close suggest the urgent enthusiasm of a storyteller. The Un poco tranquillo section moves the story on at ‘It was two years later’. Low solo voices mark out with antique solemnity the words ‘An unknown early biography of Augustine writes’, followed by equally reverential, organum-like parallel tenor and bass writing. And at three climactic points, Pärt makes particular emphasis of the actual words from Ambrosius’s famous religious text: ‘Te Deum laudamus’ early on, the Italian equivalent a little later (‘Lodiamo Te o Signore’), and the Te Deum’s final verse, ‘In Te, o Signore, ho posto la mia’—a passage as majestic and affirmative as the ‘Amen’ that follows is exquisitely sonorous.
from notes by Meurig Bowen © 2003