Brief Biography and Evolution of Compositional Style
Arvo Pärt was born in Paide, Estonia on September 11, 1935 and grew up in Tallinn. From 1958 to 1967 he was employed as a recording director and a composer of music for film and television for the music division of Estonian Radio. During this time he studied composition under Heino Eller at the Tallinn Conservatory, graduating in 1963. His early works, written while he was still a student (a string quartet and some neoclassic piano music [two Sonatinas and a Partita in 1958]) demonstrate the influence of Russian neoclassic composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev.
Pärt's first orchestral work, Necrolog of 1960, was the first work in a new experimental phase and was also the first Estonian work to use Schoenberg's dodecaphonic method. This composition, as well as other works of the early and mid-1960's served as unfulfilling experiments with serialism and aleatory techniques. However, two of the early choral compositions, the children's cantata, Meie aed (Our Garden), and the oratorio Maailma samm (Stride of the World), won first prize in 1962 at the All-Union Young Composers' Competition in Moscow. A third choral work from this period is a one-page composition called Solfeggio. “Solfeggio actually consists of a series of major scales; it looks like an exercise, but the manner in which the scales are voiced makes it a lovely, accessible piece.”
The forbidding Symphony No. 1 (Polyphonic) was dedicated to Professor Eller and is notable for a relatively clear twelve-tone structure, integral serialism and excursions into sonorism. Perpetuum mobile of 1963 is a mathematically conceived composition in which a new note (from a pitch class set derived from the Polyphonic Symphony) and a new rhythm (derived from two sets which contain twelve figures of equal duration) are assigned to successive entrances of each new instrument or group of instruments. Because these explorations into strict serial writing proved to be dissatisfying, Pärt moved to a transitional phase of experimenting with collage technique.
Pärt has stated that his collages "were an attempt to replant a flower in alien surroundings (the problem of the suitability of tissue; if they grow together into one, the transplantation was the right move). Here, however, the idea of transplantation was not in the foreground - I wished rather to cultivate a single flower myself." More specifically, Pärt’s collage technique involved the insertion of borrowed musical material, from composers such as Bach and Tchaikovsky, into his serial structure. This material included not only small quotations but also larger sections of basically unaltered music of various 17th through 19th century composers. However, while the collage technique added elements of traditional tonality to his compositions, the basic integral dodecaphonic structure remained the same.
Scored for strings, oboe, harpsichord and piano, the Collage sur B.A.C.H. was one of the first compositions using the collage technique. The second movement introduces a Bach sarabande for oboe and harpsichord which is later interrupted by violent piano tone clusters. An unexpected quotation from Tchaikovsky's "Album for Children," Süsser Traum, provides a calming conclusion to the terrifying and tragic Second Symphony. Pro et contra contains no direct quotations but only Pärt's own characterizations of the Baroque style. The Credo for piano, orchestra and chorus proved to be the final composition in Pärt's transitional phase. The choral/orchestral opening of the piece is authentically Baroque in style and eventually gives way to a direct quotation (solo piano) from Bach's C major Prelude from the Well-tempered Clavier. As in the introduction, this passage contains grand, choral interjections. Gradually, the music becomes faster and more frenzied until it finally erupts into violent chaos. Following this middle section, the piano re-introduces the C major Prelude while the chorus returns to the baroque-like passages from the introduction.
In Credo, Pärt employs choral whispering and unconventional notation (e.g., stemless notes in the section marked feroce). The most radical technique used in this piece, however, pervades not only the choral parts but also the entire orchestra. It is a form of improvisation for which Pärt specifies the pitch ranges and nothing else. The performers can sing or play any notes, of any length, during those measures – as long as they remain within the indicated pitch ranges.
After composing the Credo of 1968, Pärt entered a period of creative silence which he used for the study of medieval music. More specifically, he studied Notre Dame organum and the choral music of French and Franco-Flemish composers such as Machaut, Ockeghem, Obrecht and Josquin. After this period of silence, he re-emerged in 1971 with his Symphony No. 3, which differs significantly from any previous work. The polyphonic structure can be traced to Dutch polyphony, and contains both elements of the medieval and the classical periods, in the respective areas of melody and rhythm. Unlike any previous work, the musical language is entirely tonal. In this piece, serialism has been abandoned for a more peaceful and introspective approach. However, Pärt was not yet prepared to abandon his search for his true compositional voice. In 1972, he composed a symphonic cantata, Lied an die Geliebte, and then entered again into a period of silence. Pärt re-emerged four years later, having found the voice for which he had been searching.
New Compositional Voice
The first composition in Pärt's new style was the piano piece Für Alina. It is a composition of widely spaced pitches, open intervals and pedal tones.
Figure 1. Für Alina
Arvo Pärt Für Alina © 1990 by Universal Edition A.G., Wien. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of European American Music Distributors Corporation, sole U.S. and Canadian agent for Universal Edition, A.G., Wien.
These characteristics, among others, have become the quintessential elements in Pärt's post-1976 compositions. This piece is also the first to be composed using the tintinnabulation technique. Pärt states, "That was the first piece that was on a new plateau. It was here that I discovered the triad series, which I made my simple, little guiding rule." Pärt refers to this new style as "tintinnabuli." This can be defined as the application of various inversions of a certain chord. Also, it is a word "which evokes the pealing of bells, the bells' complex but rich sonorous mass of overtones, the gradual unfolding of patterns implicit in the sound itself, and the idea of a sound that is simultaneously static and in flux." Pärt explains the term this way:
Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers - in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises - and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. . . . The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.
More specifically, the tintinnabulation involves the predominance of a single triad in one or more voices. In a four-voice context, it is likely that two of the voices will sound only notes of a single triad. This triad is, in most cases, the tonal center of the piece from which Pärt rarely departs.
When comparing all of Pärt's post-1976 works, there is one underlying theme: the numinous.
Arvo Pärt’s approach to religion has given rise to a humbleness in his artistic aims – his is an attempt to fathom what is secret and unknowable, and he is aware that this will be revealed to him in untranslatable musical forms, if at all – in works which silence chooses to abandon of its own accord.
His music is often said to transport the listener to a “moment outside time”, emerging from silence at the beginning of the work and slowly returning to it as the piece closes. Whatever the intention of the piece, many of his works can be said to reflect the inconceivable sadness that Mary and the disciples felt as Christ was crucified before them on the cross. Sandner states, “In a world in which Christian ideals are not universally acknowledged, this state of suffering (of the Passion of Christ without which all that comes after Christ cannot occur) is not one that must be artificially created.” The melodic figures, restricted to only a few notes, are powerful in that they are filled with both grace and sadness. Sandner notes that, “Arvo Pärt’s cryptic remarks on his compositions orbit around the words ‘silent’ and ‘beautiful’ – minimal, by now almost imperiled associative notions, but ones which reverberate his musical creations.” Unresolved dissonance is exploited, most notably at phrase beginnings and endings and on decidedly important syllables of text. However, each dissonance means in ways that cannot be easily described. That is to say that the dissonances are used, not as flamboyant exhibitionist gestures (as in his earlier serial works), but as unassuming vehicles for conveying an enigmatic sorrow.
Remarkably, many of the most powerful moments in Pärt's compositions are a result of the action of a single line or the counterpoint created by only two voices. Examples of this can be heard in the Magnificat, the Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Secundum Joannem, and the Stabat Mater, among others. Pärt states: "I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements - with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials - with the triad, with one specific tonality." Pärt rarely departs from this one specific tonality; his later works exhibit an almost total lack of chromaticism. A compositional style that was previously characterized by violent dissonance has now been reborn. Free and random dissonance is no longer tolerated. His goals are now closely aligned with those of the middle ages in that, “The spirit of the music was objective. Composers strove for a cool balance of musical elements within a strong formal framework, an ideal evident in all the essential characteristics of the music…a playing down of purely sensuous appeal.” Dissonance in this new style is created through diatonic means, either through close interplay between two or three voices or with the use of carefully constructed pandiatonic tone clusters. The intent is not to be abrasive but rather to convey the sense of suffering that is so apparent in many of Pärt's works. "It has a beauty at once austere and sensuous that seems to be hardly of our time. Yet there can be little doubt that the revelation of his music has been one of the most important factors in the development of a new sensibility in recent music"