For Arvo Pärt

May 28, 2013


The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt
Andrew Shenton (Ed.)
(Cambridge University Press, 2012)
270 p.

“I was searching for a small island of sound, for a ‘place’ inside me, where… a dialogue with God might occur. To find this place was a vital task for me.”

This was how Arvo Pärt described the musical exploration which led him to his distinctive compositional method, which he calls tinntinnabulation — the music of bells. This very enjoyable collection of essays in the Cambridge Companion series examines his music from a variety of perspectives. The contributors, though almost all academics, write in a manner that is intelligible and interesting to non-specialist readers, albeit with occasional overlardings of academic jargon. Still, it is a splendid book for Pärt enthusiasts.

Arvo Pärt grew up in Estonia, on the periphery of the Soviet musical establishment, and initially he wrote serial compositions after the approved academic manner. But, as he later reflected, he began to chafe against the expressive limitations of serial music: “If the human has conflict in his soul and with everything, then this system of twelve-tone music is exactly good for this,” he said, but his heart had grown tired of conflict. In 1972, at the age of 37, he converted to Orthodoxy, and, through a sustained study of medieval and renaissance masters, was gradually led to a drastic simplification of means, to a music founded on the simplest harmonic unit:

“Holy men have left behind all their wealth and are heading for the desert. Similarly, the composer wishes to leave behind the entire modern arsenal and save himself through naked monophony carrying only that which is crucial — the triad.”

(To get a feel for his early style, here is a section from Collage über B-A-C-H, from 1964. This starts off sounding more or less like Bach, but not for long.)

(By way of contrast, here is his earliest tinntinnabuli composition, Für Alina, from 1976. This is very simple music, but the effect is enchanting.)

Though he abandoned serialism, it is interesting that he has retained in his later music an interest in structure and the permutation methods that one generally associates with serialists — but which, perhaps more relevantly, one can also find in the masters of medieval and renaissance polyphony. In one essay, Thomas Robinson comments that in Pärt’s music “fascinating structures lie hidden and ingenious processes are at work”. There are several analyses in this volume describing the rigorous structure undergirding particular compositions; one doesn’t hear it, exactly, but for me simply knowing it is there adds to the interest of the music.

(Here is a concert performance of Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror), for violin and piano, from 1978, played by Anne Akiko Meyers. This piece has a great deal of symmetry built into it. Unlucky moviegoers might remember it from the opening scene of Gus van Sant’s Gerry.)

A complaint about the book is that the idea of tinntinnabulation, the structural principle at the heart of Pärt’s music, is not very clearly explained. Some years ago I read Paul Hillier’s excellent study of Pärt, and from what I recall tinntinnabuli music is based on the interplay of (in its simplest form) two voices: one called the M voice (or ‘main’ voice) and the other the T voice (or ‘tinntinnabuli’ voice). The main voice always, or almost always, moves stepwise, and the T voice accompanies it at specified intervals, often oscillating back and forth between a position beneath the M voice and a position above it. Something like that, anyway. There is a brief discussion of these matters in the present volume, but for me the main points were not made sufficiently clearly.

(Here is one of my favourite Pärt pieces: De Profundis, for mixed choir, from 1980.)

Naturally, in a collection of this sort some of the essays are better than others. The editor, Andrew Shenton, contributed a piece called “Pärt in his own words” which is a wonderful introduction to the composer and his own understanding of his music. It helps that Pärt is such a fascinating and attractive character. The other essay that most appealed to me was called “Radiating from silence: the works of Arvo Pärt seen through a musician’s eyes”, by Andreas Peer Kahler. Without any academic pretensions, Kahler gives a brief but very insightful account of the challenges of this music and the experience of playing or singing it. He observes that the music’s apparent simplicity is deceptive, not least because the lack of virtuosity requires the musician to fall back on clear articulation, strict control, and careful balance, a combination that exposes the weaknesses of many musicians in a most unusual way. The essay I liked the least (there has to be one) was on the topic of “Arvo Pärt and spirituality”; in it, the author tries to assimilate Pärt to a pluralistic, non-committal kind of spirituality. But Pärt himself has said, “If anybody wishes to know my ‘philosophy’, then they can read any of the Church Fathers”; he is very far from being a religious syncretist.

All told, however, this is an instructive and at times fascinating book.


Let’s hear a little more music! Lest one get the impression that his music is entirely slow and meditative, listen to his (Russian) setting of the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Our Lady: Bogoróditse Djévo, from 1990. This is an amateur choir and the recording is not top shelf, but the singing is excellent:

Perhaps my favourite of Pärt’s compositions is his massive Kanon Pokajanen, for choir, from 1997. It is a beautiful and imposing setting of the Orthodox Canon of Repentance, and it ends with this tender prayer (text and translation):

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