Arvo Pärt (born 1935) was a prolific modern composer whose works were noted for their minimalism and deep spirituality. He composed works for full orchestra and chamber groups as well as choral and keyboard pieces. His work was performed in concert halls and incorporated into religious observances.
Began Career in Radio
Pärt was born on September 11, 1935, in Paide, Estonia, and was raised in Tallinn, the Estonian capital. He worked for Estonian Radio in Tallinn from 1957 until 1967 as a sound director. He also composed music for film and television for the Estonian network. His radio work had an unexpected influence on his approach to composition. In a 1998 interview in the Estonian newspaper Postimees, Pärt said: "The high end of audio techniques, which comes from having a high quality apparatus, drove me to the opposite extreme. To music's being, because audio cosmetics do not speak of substance. Music's substance is the interaction between two, three or four notes. The first steps, the changes which occur between these notes. For this you don't need sound techniques, you don't require a Steinway. This comes from the human voice, it begins with the most primitive instrument. I am not against the progress of audio techniques but you shouldn't overestimate their importance."
While at the Tallinn Conservatory, he studied composition with Heino Eller. He graduated in 1963. Pärt won first prizes in the 1962 All-Union Young Composers' Competition in Moscow for a children's cantata and an oratoria. He also worked with twelve-tone structure and other experimental forms.
Interest in Early Music
Pärt was first associated with mainstream modernist and avant-garde composition. He particularly explored serial composition, in works such as the orchestral piece "Nekrolog" (1960-1961) and many others up through "Credo" (1968).
Pärt interrupted his career for several years in the 1970s, choosing to study medieval and Renaissance music rather than to focus on his own music. In particular, he examined early chants and polyphony. About this same time, he converted to the Russian Orthodox faith. The only two pieces he wrote during this period were Symphony No. 3, written in 1971, and a cantata composed in 1972.
Pärt resumed composing in 1976. Opera News observed that after his hiatus, "his work has reflected that study, combining elements of early music, Eastern Orthodox spirituality and a search for unity through pristine beauty and simplicity." Because his music was so experimental and his newer works were concerned with religious ideas, his music was "not recommended" for performance during the 1970s by officials of the Soviet Union, of which Estonia was a member. Estonian student musicians and professionals continued performing Pärt's works in secret. In 1980, Pärt and his wife left Estonia, first moving to Israel and then to Austria, where he became a naturalized citizen.
Pärt was most frequently compared to his contemporaries Henryk Gorecki, a Polish composer of works such as Third Symphony, Op. 36, "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" (1976), and John Tavener, a British composer. Their genre was dubbed "holy minimalism." Terry Teachout wrote in Commentary in 1995: "There is no commonly accepted term for this style, though it is sometimes referred to as 'European mysticism' or 'holy minimalism.' … All three men are intensely religious, are associated with orthodox faiths, and write both secular scores and music intended for liturgical usage; all three use repetition in a manner broadly reminiscent of the American minimalists."
Pärt's music was built on the successes of popular avant-garde minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Teachout said "the long road away from Schoenberg and Cage to Henryk Gorecki was paved in part by the easy-on-the-ear minimalism of Philip Glass and his contemporaries, as well as by the accessible avant-gardism of George Crumb… . It took classical music a full halfcentury to escape the cul de sac of hermetic modernism and reclaim the usable past of tonality."
Pärt called his musical approach tintinnabuli. Jeffers Engelhardt, writing in Notes in 2001, explained it as "an onomatopoeic term recalling liturgical bells. As a musical language, tintinnabuli is concerned with three essential elements: the triad, the linear melodic line, and silence. As a compositional process, tintinnabuli unites these elements with a sacred text in a manner that is at once systematic and deeply symbolic… . What emerges is a constellation of word and tone ranging from the austere to the playful." According to Engelhardt, the best examples of such works by Pärt were "Zwei slawische Psalmen (1984)," a piece using Psalms 117 and 131, sung in Church Slavonic, and "Te Deum" (1984-1985; rev. 1992).
The Sound of Silence
Another telling characteristic of Pärt's work was his use of silence within music. In a 1998 interview with Daniel Zwerdling on National Public Radio, Pärt, through an interpreter, referred to those silences as "intervals," which he said "take up a life of their own when the whole piece is being played in a cathedral. In my music, there is no difference concerning the importance between the musical parts and the parts with the silences. I would even go as far as to say that the silences become a very special life and a very special importance of their own. The score is written in a way that makes it necessary to have the silences for the overtones to create a new layer that vibrates during the silence parts."
Pärt was usually silent himself, rarely submitting to interviews. And when he did, he seemed evasive, even shy, in answering questions about his works and their meaning. He said he disliked talking and preferred silence. During a press conference, Brian Hunt of the Daily Telegraph said he came to see Pärt's seeming evasiveness as "a complete misunderstanding. He does not want to say anything without meaning; he does not want to manufacture answers simply to satisfy a questioner; he does not want words to obscure truths which only music can express."
Pärt said in the 1998 interview in Postimees that it was difficult to use language to describe his music: "There are as many different ways of perception as there are listeners and all of them are justified. From the perception to the words, however, there is a great loss when music is being written about… . You can write about your impressions, the mu sic's structure, its form and perhaps something else. It is much more difficult to put music itself into words. I think that this truth, that exists in art and music, causes a resonance in a person somewhere deep and secret. When they themselves have a need to feel the truth and a gift for the cognition of the truth. Music remains music and a word is still a word. They can very freely and peaceably coexist."
Pärt frequently based his work on passages from the Bible such as the Psalms or New Testament, while other pieces used religious texts such as the prayers of St. John Chrysostom or church liturgies such as the Russian Orthodox Canon of Repentance. Examples of the latter include "Memento" (1994) and "Kanon Pokajonen" (1997). Many of Pärt's works were recorded by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra.
Difficulty in Simplicity
Tom Manoff, music critic for the National Public Radio program "All Things Considered," observed that Pärt was a "kind, often funny man. Pärt can communicate the most profound sentiment without solemnity… . Pärt's music may strike the listener as sometimes sparse, but this apparent simplicity does not make for easy performance. His often transparent collage of sound in which an instrument or a voice may suddenly enter and then disappear makes his music difficult to perform."
Pärt said the act of composition is different for each artist, but it is always difficult. He said in the Postimees interview: "I believe that a true artist [is] always faced with the situation of making a sacrificial choice… . Behind the sacrifice is love. Universal love." In the same interview, Pärt said his commercial compositions helped him only in "getting money for a sandwich. It doesn't help me in any other way."
Though many contemporary critics found Pärt's compositions accessible, others thought his work too minimal. In a 2000 Opera News review of Pärt's "I Am the True Vine," a piece originally commissioned for the nine hundredth anniversary of the Norwich Cathedral, the anonymous reviewer wrote: "I appreciate this music, respect it and am even moved at times by its plain beauty and its holy treatment of its ancient liturgical texts; I understand how it differs from minimalism and from New Age. Still, in the end, stasis is stasis is stasis."
"The music of Arvo Pärt can be somewhat polarizing," observed Rick Anderson in a 2002 review in Notes about Pärt's "Johannes-Passion," a recording of a choral piece based on the Passion According to St. John. "While many find the emotional intensity and spirituality of his compositions inspiring and uplifting, others react with less enthusiasm to the relatively static harmonic movement and lack of thematic development that typify his work."
Will Hermes flippantly pointed out in a 1998 Entertainment Weekly review of "Kanon Pokajanen" that Pärt was "championed by Bjork, Michael Stipe, and discerning candle merchants worldwide" but called the recording "a landmark a cappella choral work of brooding majesty based on the Russian Orthodox canon of repentance. Ambient-music fans may be a bit overwhelmed. But enter its exquisite polyphony and Christian pathology, and you will be utterly transported."
Pärt contended in the 1998 interview that he had no favorite composition: "All the compositions are like my own children. It is not necessarily so that the healthiest or most beautiful child is the most precious. Some piece which has not succeeded and which may never be finished may still be the closest to one's heart."
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Centennial Edition, Schirmer, 2001.
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Grove Press, 1980.
Commentary, April 1995.
The Daily Telegraph, November 1, 1997.
Entertainment Weekly, September 11, 1998.
Notes, June 2001; March 2002.
Opera News, July 2000.
Washington Post, May 12, 2000.
"All Things Considered," National Public Radio, July 6, 1994;December 13, 1998.
David Pinkerton's Arvo Pärt Information Archive, http://www.arvopart.org (February 28, 2003).