The music of Arvo Pärt has attracted the attention of many in recent years. Because his music appears to be both simple and familiar yet so astonishingly new, many have attempted to pinpoint its origins. “One senses its roots and its spirit, but the structure of the music is harder to grasp. A curious union of historical master-craftsmanship and modern ‘gestus’, it is music that could have been written 250 years ago and yet could only be composed today.”
Some of the labels that have been applied to Pärt’s music are minimalism, spiritualism, spiritual minimalism, suffering minimalism, faith minimalism, and new simplism. These labels are arguably justifiable in that they identify Pärt’s music with that of the minimalist movement of the last half of the twentieth century. However, after a detailed analysis of his music, these terms become inadequate in completely defining his style, in that they fail to even hint at the strong medieval influences in his works. Pärt has even been referred to as a “minimalist pioneer,” although the composer himself would probably more closely align his music with that of the Gothic period.
If one tries to think of points of reference in defining the nature of Pärt’s music one might mention, in addition to plainsong and medieval heterophony, the liturgical music of Stravinsky, Satie’s Socrate, and occasionally the ceremonial music of Janácek. But this does not mean that Pärt is influenced by these or any composers; still less does his work have anything in common – apart from the obvious fact that he uses few notes and much repetition – with the minimalists with whom he is sometimes allied.
Although some place Pärt’s music in a category separate to that of traditional minimalism -- and correctly so -- his music does contain elements of both the medieval style and the minimalist style.
The goal of this thesis is to identify the elements of both styles in terms of directly applied techniques and borrowed ideas and philosophies. I will analyze elements in the area of rhythm and form, pitch, texture, and relationship of text to music that contribute to the Gothic character of Pärt’s style. For this discussion we will use the term “Gothic” to refer to the musical arts of the medieval period. This term is most often associated with the visual arts but can be applied to music as well. I will also show how the application of minimalist techniques and philosophies further contribute to the medieval quality. Although the similarities to medieval music and minimalism will be shown, I will also discuss what Pärt calls “tintinnabula,” “tintinnabuli” or “tintinnabulation” and how the application of this technique aids in the creation of a style radically different from either the Gothic or minimalist style. For this discussion we will use Pärt’s Magnificat (1989) and Stabat Mater (1985) as our main sources for providing examples of his use of medieval, minimalist and tintinnabulation techniques.