Arvo Pärt

ABOUT THE MUSIC

 

​It is hard to remember a time when the name Arvo Pärt was not a familiar one to the concertgoing and CD-buying public around the world—and yet it has been not even 35 years since this composer, 45 years old and only beginning by then to develop an international reputation, emigrated to the West from his native Estonia. 

 

What happened next—thanks in part, one would guess, to a series of releases by the German record label ECM that quickly became vastly popular—is one of the more remarkable success stories of late twentieth-century music. What is even more remarkable, perhaps, about this achievement is that Pärt’s entire career up to that point had showed him seemingly bent on avoiding success, on deliberately going against the prevailing grain.

 

As a much younger composer, Pärt had written twelve-tone music when this technique, thought by the Soviet artistic establishment to be infected by Western-influenced “formalism,” was severely frowned upon; later, when such “advanced” approaches had become acceptable, he turned to religious themes, setting off a new round of disapproval. Nor did the first pieces in his new style of the late 1970s seem destined to win him much acclaim, judging from their initial, rather mixed reception. 

 

Pärt is now probably the most famous of the group of composers classified in the critics’ lexicon as the mystical minimalists (or, sometimes and more pejoratively, the “holy minimalists”), along with John Tavener, Henryk Górecki, and a number of others. Like most such classifications, it is misleading in certain ways. First of all, Pärt’s mature style developed in near-complete isolation and can be said to resemble only fortuitously those of other composers of whom he is sometimes spoken in the same breath. Second, minimalism in the strict sense is an American phenomenon, characterized by a specific aesthetic orientation that is quite antithetical to the sensibilities of Pärt or, for that matter, of Tavener, Górecki, or others placed in the “mystical” classification. What these Europeans do share with one another, and with the American minimalists, is a strong proclivity for simplification of the materials and means of musical composition, seemingly in reaction to and rejection of the notorious complexities of the high modernism that dominated contemporary music during the decades following the end of World War II. Historically speaking, such reductionist developments are nothing new (one thinks of the abandonment of the elaborate schemes of Renaissance counterpoint as the early Baroque got under way around 1600, or the oblivion suffered by J.S. Bach’s work after his death in 1750 as musicians gravitated to the galant and early Classical styles), but the desire to simplify as it emerged in some of the most distinctive compositional voices of the late twentieth century may well have been more radical than any comparable movement in the past.

 

Starting in 1976, Pärt’s adoption of what he came to call his tintinnabuli style was a radical change indeed: one or more instrumental or vocal parts that are basically melodic in construction are placed against one or more additional parts projecting arpeggiations of a major or minor triad, the latter evoking “tintinnabulation,” or the ringing of bells. The technical ramifications of this basic idea, however, show that what is simple in conception does not necessarily produce simple results1. And the extensive oeuvre that Pärt has amassed over the past 35 years or so is ample testament to the rich vein that he has tapped. 

 

Listeners who are familiar with older Western music, especially from the Renaissance and earlier, will notice that Pärt’s style, while utterly distinctive and almost instantly recognizable, bears a kind of general affinity to that repertoire. This affinity has little to do with specific compositional techniques, for as Pärt himself has noted, he was drawn to early music less out of an interest in the way it was put together than for its spiritual qualities. Just what “spiritual” might mean in this context is open to question; suffice it to say here that this orientation may well reflect the way in which he immersed himself in the music of the centuries preceding 1600, at a time when he was experiencing the greatest artistic crisis of his life, a five-year period (1971–76) during which he wrote nothing. As Paul Hillier has recounted, Pärt went back to plainchant in an attempt to teach himself all over again how to write melodies, and then worked his way forward, studying in turn the earliest polyphony, the Notre Dame school, Machaut, the ars novaand the Flemish composers of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, concluding with Palestrina and Victoria in the late sixteenth century. Such a vast overview, deep as well as broad, undoubtedly brought home to him the profound differences between earlier music as a whole and the music of the later common-practice period (ca. 1700–1900) on which traditional training is still based. 

 

Pärt’s earliest works in the tintinnabuli style, written while he was still living in Talinn (the Estonian capital), were predominantly instrumental. Commenting on this aspect of Pärt’s output, Hillier mentions the circumstances under which they were first performed: at the time, Pärt relied heavily on Hortus Musicus, a group based in Talinn that was devoted to early music performance and whose members were mostly instrumentalists. Hillier also notes that after Pärt’s emigration in 1980, “the balance tipped strongly in the opposite direction,” with about three-quarters of his works since then written either entirely for voices or for voices combined with instruments.

 

The works on this CD emphasize the a cappella side of this post-emigration period, providing a representative sampling from some of Pärt’s most productive years (1988–91) together with several selections composed later in the 1990s. For just one work, the Berlin Mass, the voices of the Byrd Ensemble are accompanied by organ. 

 

The earliest of these works, the Seven Magnificat Antiphons (1988; revised 1991), marks only the second time that Pärt set a German text; previously he had worked almost entirely with Latin. Perhaps the fact that it was commissioned for the Radio Chamber Choir in Berlin, a group whose broadcast performances reached audiences far and wide, suggested that the vernacular language would be the most appropriate choice. Each of these texts, in its normal liturgical context, functions as the antiphon to one iteration of the Magnificat, sung at Vespers on each of the seven evenings preceding Christmas Eve; in Pärt’s composition, these texts are set simply as a series of seven movements. The work is scored for the standard four voice parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), except for the second antiphon (“O Adonai”), for tenor and bass only, and the third (“O Root of Jesse”), for soprano and alto only. Tonally speaking, the piece centers on A major, the key in which the first antiphon (“O Wisdom”), the fourth and middle antiphon (“O Key of David”), and the last (“O Immanuel”) are heard. The second and third antiphons are in F-sharp minor and C-sharp minor respectively, a third above and below A; the fifth (“O Morning Star”) and sixth (“O King of All Peoples”) are in E major/minor and D minor respectively, thus a fifth above and below the central key.

 

Pärt’s Magnificat, composed in 1989, is a piece of rather modest length compared to Magnificats of past eras; it lasts just under seven minutes. Hillier calls it “a small masterpiece,” which seems an appropriate way to describe this (for Pärt) rather joyous work. Its beautifully compact form is experienced essentially an alternation between passages scored for full choir (SATB with divisi soprano parts, including a solo soprano from time to time) and passages more lightly scored, for just two or three parts. 

 

The most substantial work on this CD is the Berlin Mass (1990, for solo voices and organ; revised 1992 for chorus and string orchestra), which is heard here in its original version. Pärt has augmented the usual sequence of movements of the Catholic Mass with a pair of (optional) very short Alleluia verses and a quite lengthy Veni Sancte Spiritus (also optional), inserted between the Gloria and the Credo. It seems clear that Pärt would prefer the piece to be performed complete with these optional sections, since the lightly scored Veni Sancte Spiritus makes an agreeable contrast to the flanking movements in which the full choir is heard throughout. A rather dark Sanctus, with a mysteriously pulsating organ part, and an attenuated, almost ethereal Agnus Dei conclude the work.

CD Booket (Our Lady: Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks)

THE BYRD ENSEMBLE
Markdavin Obenza, director

 

1. Seven Magnificat Antiphons: O Weisheit

2. Seven Magnificat Antiphons: O Adonai

3. Seven Magnificat Antiphons: O Sproß aus Isais Wurzel

4. Seven Magnificat Antiphons: O Sclüssel Davids

5. Seven Magnificat Antiphons: O Morgenstern

6. Seven Magnificat Antiphons: O König aller Völker

7. Seven Magnificat Antiphons: O Immanuel

8. I Am the True Vine

9. The Woman with the Alabaster Box

10. Tribute to Caesar

11. Berlin Mass: Kyrie

12. Berlin Mass: Gloria

13. Berlin Mass: Erster Alleluiavers zum Weihnachtsfest

14. Berlin Mass: Zweiter Alleluiavers zum Weihnachtsfest

15. Berlin Mass: Erster Alleluiavers zum Pfingstfest

16. Berlin Mass: Zweiter Alleluiavers zum Pfingstfest

17. Berlin Mass: Veni Sancte Spiritus

18. Berlin Mass: Credo

19. Berlin Mass: Sanctus

20. Berlin Mass: Agnus Dei

21. Magnificat

 

In the course of his career up through the 1980s, Pärt had set texts in Estonian, Latin, German, and Church Slavonic, but never in English. His first work in that language, The Beatitudes (1990), was followed later in the 1990s by other English settings, three of which are included on this CD. These more recent works, while retaining many of the features of Pärt’s pieces of the late ’70s and ’80s—the slow tempos, simple rhythms, syllabic text setting, and a generally consonant harmonic environment in which dissonance appears to play an additive rather than constructive role—adhere less strictly to the principles of tintinnabuli. I Am the True Vine (1996), a setting of the Gospel according to St. John (15:1–14), in fact does entirely without the arpeggiative feature. Instead, a long sequence of notes heard one, two, or three at a time wends its way, vine-like, from the bass up through the inner parts to the soprano and back down again, over and over; then the whole sequence is repeated for a total of six iterations, in a different rhythm each time and with other variation provided by sustained notes.

 

The Woman with the Alabaster Box and Tribute to Caesar (both 1997) were commissioned for the same occasion and were premiered together. Like I Am the True Vine, they are settings of Scripture, in this case the Gospel according to St. Matthew (26:6–13 and 22:15–22 respectively) and bear only the lightest traces of the tintinnabuli technique. In both pieces, the text, featuring episodes from the life of Jesus, is clearly projected as narrative, sometimes in very long measures (as in The Woman) and often in the manner of reciting tones. The words of Jesus receive special emphasis and are set in ways markedly different from the rest of the text. 

 

- Jonathan W. Bernard

 

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JONATHAN W. BERNARD is Professor in the School of Music, University of Washington (Seattle), where he has taught music theory and analysis since 1987. As a scholar, he specializes in Western music of the past 100 years; his writings have appeared in many professional journals and anthologies. He is the author of The Music of Edgard Varèse (Yale University Press) and the editor of Elliott Carter: Collected Essays and Lectures (University of Rochester Press) and Joël-François Durand in the Mirror Land (University of Washington Press).

 

PRESS

 

"..., this recording creates the illusion of hearing the music for the first time.  The small size and the clear, fresh voices of the Byrd Ensemble, an American group with a strong background in Renaissance music, mean that the dissonanaces and their consequent resolutions in the Seven Magnificat Antiphons and the Magnificat in particular are brought into focus in a truly remarkable way." 
  
"The precision of the performances, and the great attention paid to the enunciation of the texts, does not mean that they are cold or uninvolving, however: there is also a sense of space, of unhurriedness, that lets the music breathe."
 
"The Berlin Mass also receives a wonderfully crystalline performance, with organ registrations very sensitively chosen by Sheila Bristow, but for me it is theMagnificat and the Antiphons that show best the Byrd Ensemble’s ability to enter into the spirit of this music, simultaneously ‘stripped’ and loaded with meaning. Highly recommended."
 
Moody, Ivan. “Reviews.” Gramophone Magazine May 2014.