For Pärt, however, it was more than just a technical challenge or the possibility of ritual-like musical repetition. The attraction to this text (in its ‘traditional and authoritative’ translation, according to Pärt) came bound up with the nature of the commission itself—the singers the piece was for and the country it was premiered in.
Pärt was asked to write a work for the youth choir Voices of Europe, gathered in Reykjavík in 2000 to celebrate its status as European Capital of Culture that year. The choir featured ten singers each from the nine previous Cultural Capitals, aged between 18 and 23. Pärt’s first decision, therefore, was to set a text in English, Europe’s de facto ‘lingua franca’ as it were.
Pärt had visited Iceland previously, and was impressed by the country’s highly educated population, their high levels of interest in European literature and, he noted, the unusually large number of writers amongst them. Add to that the composer’s interest in the deep-rooted Icelandic tradition of passing on names from one generation to generation, and his wish to impart this biblical ‘story of civilisation’ to young people, and verses 23 to 38 of Luke 3 became a compelling text. To him, one senses, this is not merely a fabulous list of ancient names, a biblical truth since challenged by Darwin; there is something germinal and sacred about it—gospel indeed.
Needless to say, Pärt ensures this text avoids monotony through variance of character and a distinct climax along the way. After an opening whose sprung rhythms give it the assuredness of a French-style baroque ouverture, the piece takes off with the same narrative urgency of Dopo la vittoria. Basses are answered by the upper three voices—shades of folksiness and Spirituals here?—and after about a third of the text is deftly dispatched in this way, a more mellifluous section in 9/8 takes over. A fluid interchange of 4/4 and 9/8 sections takes us right through the climactic trio of Jacob, Isaac and Abraham—wondrous C major emphasis on the last of these. And through use of the surprisingly familiar ‘cycle of fifths’ harmonic sequence, the oldest ancestors of Jesus are ever more quickly revealed, almost breathlessly to reach the ultimate, fundamental truth—‘which was the son of Adam, which was the son of …’—and here Pärt sets it all out with respectful simplicity and resolution—‘… God.’
from notes by Meurig Bowen © 2003