Arvo Pärt

1935–

20th Century/Modern

Arvo Pärt – a quiet, gentle, determined and talented man – may be the world’s most popular classical composer. Since the 1970s he has written music that can find its way directly into people’s hearts, transfixing their ears and calming their minds.

Pärt grew up in communist Estonia: for a bold composer, it was not an easy place to be. It was ruled by the Soviet Union, and the authorities didn’t like the young Pärt’s dissonant music – music that can be challenging for our ears, with notes that clash. But not only did the authorities dislike it, Pärt wasn’t convinced he liked it himself! He left Estonia and ended up in Germany. By then he had converted to the Russian Orthodox faith and developed an interest in medieval and renaissance music.

Eventually he started writing in a style that some call ‘holy minimalism’. Minimalism is where simple snippets of music are repeated over and over again with gradual, subtle changes: it can be hypnotic. The ‘holy’ bit is because his music has a religious foundation. Even without sung words, his pieces have a spiritual feeling, as if they are echoing something out of this world. Pärt described his own style as ‘tintinnabuli’ – like bells. The amazing thing is that it sounds refreshingly simple yet it is detailed and complicated underneath! Pärt structures it so carefully, and although you can’t detect the intellectual building blocks when you listen, they help to make it satisfying as well as moving.

Pärt is a courageous man. In following his own path, he stood up to the Soviet authorities as well as to many serious musicians, who have mocked his ‘simple’ style. With his wonderfully bushy beard, he looks like a prophet, and the deep religious sincerity of his music has touched people who know little church music. It seems to satisfy a hunger for something more serious than the bland popular music we hear everywhere. He offers meditation, spirituality, echoes of an ancient stillness in the midst of modern chaos. Famously reclusive, he doesn’t feel the need to talk much: ‘Music says what I want to say.’

Arvo Pärt, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Pärt’s pieces are here to try…

Fratres (‘Brothers’) – for strings and percussion

The static, peaceful, magical quality of Pärt’s music is shown here. String instruments play a hymn in thick chords above a ‘drone’ – long held notes underneath. A gentle bass drum and claves (wood blocks) punctuate the sound, rooting it to the earth. In the end, it gradually fades away.

Performers: Antal Eisrich, percussion; Miklós Kovács, percussion; Hungarian State Opera Orchestra Strings; Tamás Benedek

Taken from Naxos 8.553750

Summa

This unaccompanied choral piece sets the words ‘Credo in unum Deum…’ (‘I believe in one God…’). The music rises and falls, then repeats.

Performers: The Elora Singers; Noel Edison

Taken from Naxos 8.557299

Spiegel im Spiegel (‘Mirror in the mirror’)

Spiegel im Spiegel is in Pärt’s ‘tintinnabuli’ (bell-like) style, here used to create a soothing, dreamlike world. The title means ‘mirror in the mirror’ – if you reflect a mirror in a mirror, the reflections go on for ever…

Performers: Malin Broman, violin; Simon Crawford-Phillips, piano

Taken from Naxos 9.70214

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Pärt comes from where?

a. Poland
b. Russia
c. Estonia

 He converted to which religion?

a. Russian Orthodox
b. Roman Catholic
c. Buddhist

 His style has been labelled as what?

a. Easy listening
b. Holy minimalism
c. Romantic

 His music often uses what?

a. String quartet
b. Silence
c. Video

 He wrote which of these works?

a. Fratres
b. Stimmung
c. Verklärte Nacht


Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. As a young man, Pärt worked as a sound director in radio.
  2. Pärt stopped composing completely for several years in the 1970s. Instead he studied medieval and renaissance music, and the ancient chants of the Russian Orthodox Church.
  3. Pärt is not the only composer to adopt ‘holy minimalism’. The Polish composer Henryk Górecki and the British composer John Tavener are among other ‘holy minimalists’ – though many of these composers don’t actually like the label.
  4. Pärt is a bit like his music – he likes stillness and silence.
  5. The great violinist Gidon Kremer described Pärt’s music as ‘a cleansing of all the noise that surrounds us’.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Orchestral Music


Tabula Rasa

Tabula Rasa is a ‘double concerto’ for two violins, string orchestra and prepared piano. ‘Prepared piano’ means the piano has bits put inside so it sounds more like a percussion instrument: listen at 2:40 in track 1, for example, where what sounds like a harp is actually the piano! It is in Pärt’s repetitive ‘tintinnabuli’ (bell-like) style. In ‘Ludus’ (‘Game’), there are sections of restless movement alternating with stillness, the two violins sometimes playing really high. ‘Silentium’ (‘Silence’) is more peaceful. The deeper the melody sinks, the slower it gets, until it unwinds into silence….

Performers: Lesley Hatfield, violin; Rebecca Kirsch, violin; Ulster Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa

Taken from Naxos 8.554591


Collage on B-A-C-H

This is from 1964, before Pärt had found a compositional ‘voice’ he was happy with. His worry is heard in this work. He said later: ‘In my state of extreme discomfort at that time I wanted to prove to myself how beautiful Bach’s music was, and how hateful mine was…’ It is all based on a group of notes beginning with B-A-C-H (in German, the notes B flat, A, C, B natural). The middle movement (track 2) especially shows Pärt’s stress: a beautiful bit of J.S. Bach’s English Suite on the oboe is interrupted by a horrible distortion of the music. It’s a clever piece that shows an extraordinary composer’s creative journey.

Performers: Ulster Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa

Taken from Naxos 8.554591


Symphony No. 3

Pärt was inspired by early music and Gregorian chant. Once he had decided to simplify his musical style, he wrote this old-sounding symphony. The whole work is simple and sophisticated at the same time: the themes are simple, but what Pärt does with them is sophisticated.

Performers: Ulster Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa

Taken from Naxos 8.554591


Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten

The English composer Benjamin Britten died in 1976; this was performed three years later in London. A single bell sounds – like a funeral bell – and from the string instruments a slow descending scale (a sequence of notes that go down step by step) repeats and overlaps in different ways. The bell joins in. It finally descends into silence. Pärt admired Britten, and sadly Britten died before the two men could meet; this piece is mourning his death.

Performers: Antal Eisrich, percussion; Hungarian State Opera Orchestra Strings; Tamás Benedeck

Taken from Naxos 8.553750

Choral


Tribute to Caesar

This lovely work for unaccompanied choir was written in 1997. It sets the verses from the Gospel of St. Matthew where Jesus outwits the disciples of the Pharisees – his enemies, who are trying to trick him. It contrasts thick chordal sounds with parts where a single, clear line is heard from individual voices.

Performers: The Elora Singers; Noel Edison

Taken from Naxos 8.570239


Nunc dimittis

This setting of the Nunc dimittis, from St Luke’s Gospel, was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 2001. The music is radiant and serene to begin with, and builds slowly to a fervent climax in the middle. Listen to the chords from 3:47 – clusters of notes that are satisfying to listen to, and quite characteristic of Pärt.

Performers: The Elora Singers; Noel Edison

Taken from Naxos 8.570239


Bogoróditse Djévo (‘Mother of God and Virgin’)

This short piece was written for the annual Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge in 1992. The words are a tribute to the Virgin Mary, and the music is direct, expressive and positive.

Performers: The Elora Singers; Noel Edison

Taken from Naxos 8.570239


Passio (St John Passion)

One of the great modern religious works, Pärt wrote this between 1980 and 1982. It is in one single movement, but here separated into four sections. The text is always allowed to speak for itself: for Pärt, the text ‘is more important than the music’ because ‘the text has given food for hundreds and thousands of composers’. So he does not describe specific words in the music – he works out how to create patterns that work all the way through and allow the text to shine. Just listen to the arresting opening, where Jesus is betrayed and arrested. It is a compelling work, telling this moving human story.

Performers: Tonus Peregrinus; Antony Pitts

Taken from Naxos 8.555860

Instrumental and Chamber Works


Fratres (‘Brothers’) – for string quartet

Pärt said ‘the instant and eternity are struggling within us’. His Fratres seems to capture that struggle: the music feels both urgent and also as if it will stretch into a never-ending line, far into the future. Fratres exists in different versions: the one for strings and percussion appears above as a spotlight track. This one is for string quartet (two violins, viola and cello). At the beginning, the violins play ‘harmonics’ – can you hear how the notes are high and breathy? And where in the spotlight version the bass drum comes in softly, here it is a cello instead, playing pizzicato (plucked) (e.g. at 2:52… but it’s very quiet!). Which version do you like best?

Performers: Béla Nagy, violin; Katalin Schneider, violin; Rezső Hajna, viola; Judit Kis Domonkos, cello

Taken from Naxos 8.553750


Piano Sonatine, Op. 1 No. 1

Written in 1958, this is one of Pärt’s very earliest works. He wrote it while he was studying music at the Conservatory in Tallinn, Estonia. With its spiky, playful energy it shows how the composer had absorbed the music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Pärt is best known for his choral works but he wrote a small body of piano music from different stages in his career.

Performers: Ralph van Raat, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572525


Für Alina

This is an early example of Pärt’s ‘tintinnabuli’ style, published in 1976. Can you hear how it is like bells? It was written for a young girl who was moving abroad to study. Two single lines on the piano sound together, moving apart and coming back. It is so still and peaceful.

Performers: Ralph van Raat, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572525


Für Anna Maria

Written in 2006, this pretty little piece was written for the 10th birthday of an Estonian girl. It exudes innocence and joy.

Performers: Ralph van Raat, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572525


Spiegel im Spiegel

Pärt wrote this celebrated work in 1978, just before he left Estonia. It is in his ‘tintinnabuli’ (bell-like) style, here used to create a soothing, dreamlike world. The piano plays groups of three notes – each one is a chord or triad split into single notes – and the violin befriends it with long notes that fit it beautifully. The two instruments seem to float together. The title means ‘mirror in the mirror’ – if you reflect a mirror in a mirror, the reflections go on for ever…

Performers: Malin Broman, violin; Simon Crawford-Phillips, piano

Taken from Naxos 9.70124