Influences: Medieval and Minimalist Compositional Techniques
The influence of the composers who’s works Pärt studied in the early 1970’s is immediately noticeable in nearly all of his post-1976 compositions. Before any discussion on Pärt’s compositional style as influenced by this music, we must first closely examine various stylistic characteristics of the said period in order to see how Pärt has used this material in an altogether different style. However, it is in no way correct to say that Pärt merely copies the practices of the medieval period. Throughout the following paragraphs, many generalizations of the music of that time will be identified. We will examine not only the medieval period as a whole but also general compositional techniques of Dufay and Ockeghem. Several of these techniques are used by Pärt while others are not. Also, Pärt occasionally uses a specific medieval device in a fashion opposite to its original use. This discussion attempts to present a general and not a comprehensive analysis of the various compositional styles of the Gothic period or the compositional style of Dufay or Ockeghem.
The masses of Dufay are excellent sources to examine for identifying some stylistic characteristics of the period. A tenor voice cantus firmus made up of long note values is the basis for the work, around which the remaining voices are constructed. The range of each voice part lies within a tenth . Phrases vary in length from one measure to eight or ten. Although not prominent in the medieval period, Dufay does employ some motivic writing. A motive can be one particular interval or a short series of intervals. Melodic motion is stepwise, though skips of thirds, fourths and fifths also appear quite frequently. Skips are restricted to an ascending interval of a sixth (descending sixths are not used). Little use is made of chromaticism, except at internal cadences where C and F sharp often appear or when B flat is used to prepare a cadence on F. By the middle of the 13th century, after organum and conductus had become less popular, lines are generally independent of one another, both melodically and rhythmically. Passing tones and suspensions are the primary devices used to create dissonance and are used primarily on unstressed syllables of text. All of these said dissonances resolve to perfect consonances. “Most of the vertical relations are triads (in four-part textures) and imperfect consonances in three- and two-part textures. When triads occur, they are used exclusively in root position and first inversion.” Second inversion triads are used only in rhythmically weak positions. “Internal cadences often have full triads or imperfect consonant resolutions; final cadences always end on an open fifth and/or octave.” The motion of the bass voice is usually by fourths or fifths as by this time, the bass has assumed a quasi harmonic function. Rhythmically, the upper voices contain the most activity, the bass less activity, and the tenor (cantus firmus) the least activity of all. The eighth note is the smallest note value used. “The first beat of the metrical pattern usually has longer value except when syncopated…” Most often, increased activity precedes a cadence. Much use is made of textural contrast (i.e. between two-, three-, and four-part textures). Form is determined most often by text, but musical elements reinforce this.
Several notable and important aspects of Ockeghem’s style are “a great sense of fluidity which tends to obscure internal cadences and lessen the importance of harmonic relationships; more independence of voice parts, with larger ranges and fewer crossings; increased use of imitation and limited but outstanding use of canon; and characteristic increase of motion at most cadential approaches by using dotted rhythms.” Ockeghem’s lines generally do not coincide with one another, meaning that individual voices enter and exit independently of one another at varying points in the text. The length of phrases are often unequal and in many cases, the phrase in one line begins or ends in a different place than the phrase in another line. Ockeghem makes extensive use of syncopation as it is useful in contributing to the fluidity of line. Like Dufay, Ockeghem uses much textural variation. Solo voice passages are contrasted with two-, three- and four-part textures, homophony is contrasted with polyphony and close voice proximity is contrasted with more open spacing. Grout states,
Another way Ockeghem achieved contrast was to write occasional passages in which all parts sing in identical rhythms, producing a homophonic (or homorhythmic) texture. This declamatory manner of writing was rare among earlier Franco-Flemish composers, who reserved it for passages where they desired to place special emphasis on the words. It became much more common in the latter half of the sixteenth century.
The coloristic qualities of each individual voice type and the tessitura of each voice type are also exploited. All of these qualities are very important in examining Pärt’s music.
Medieval Rhythmic Devices
Pärt makes use of two medieval rhythmic devices. The first is the system of rhythmic modes. Rowell states, "Until the early fourteenth century, musical rhythm was entirely dependent upon the rhythmic patterns of speech - the traditional poetic meters (iambic, trochaic, dactylic, anapestic, et al.) and the structural patterns of formal society. The result was what has often been called 'the eternal triple meter of the Middle Ages,' supported intellectually by its Trinitarian associations - God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." This system was codified around 1250 by Johannes de Garlandia in De Musica mensurabili and is essentially the first stage in the history of rhythm. Each of the six rhythmic modes contains a different combination of long and short notes.
The value of the normal breve or short note (brevis recta) is one temporal unit (tempus), and that of the normal long (longa recta) is two. The modes that make use of these values only (the first, second and sixth) are known as modi recti; in them each foot contains a total of three tempora. The basic values may be altered to accommodate patterns of greater length -- the so-called modi ultra mensuram – to the ternary rhythm of the shorter ones. Thus, in the third, fourth, and fifth modes the longs have three tempora, while in the third and fourth the first breve has one and the second two. Musical phrases (ordines), commonly marked off by rests corresponding in duration to the last element of the foot, are created by one or more repetitions of the modal pattern.
In this system, phrases were identified by one of two possible endings. A masculine ending is one which contains rounding while the feminine ending does not contain the final rest. The feminine ending is not as aesthetically pleasing as the masculine ending because the phrase or section ends with a note on an unaccented syllable.
The 13th and 14th century term hocket refers to a composition or technique involving two voices in which when one voice sings, the other rests. Grout adds,
The effect is that of a hiccup, ochetus in Latin, from which the term is probably derived. Passages in hocket occur occasionally in secular conductus and motets of the late thirteenth century and more frequently in the early fourteenth century. Pieces in which hocketing was used extensively were themselves called hockets.
In the 16th century, the term was applied to a certain type of cadence in which one voice, approaching the tonic from above, fails to reach its destination, and instead has a rest at least one beat long. The leading tone in another voice reaches the tonic and has at least a whole-note value, over which the theme of the next section begins. “Such passages . . . create a rapid rhythmic effect that was used to build up excitement and climax.
Chant and Organum
Though Pärt is said to be most influenced by the above mentioned medieval composers, his style shows the influence of earlier music. Because Pärt’s vocal lines are generally rhythmically bound to one another (though they do have some melodic independence), his music at times more closely resembles that of 11th century organum.
By the end of the eleventh century, polyphony had developed to a point where composers were able to combine two melodically independent lines by using oblique and contrary motion. Simultaneous intervals had been stabilized by the invention of precise pitch notation on a staff. Two other essentials had still to be achieved: the ability to combine two or more rhythmically independent melodies; and a precise method of notating rhythm.
Apart from his extensive use of chant-like melodic elements, Pärt also uses devices such as the drone; an eternity symbol which in the 13th century appeared in compositions as elongated chant melodies above which other voices would provide melismatic interjections.
Now that many of the medieval stylistic generalizations have been identified, attention must now turn to the twentieth century and the minimalist movement in order to identify other trends that have had an influence on Pärt’s compositional style.
Since the piano piece Für Alina of 1976, Pärt has limited his tonal and rhythmic materials to the bare minimum. When the musicians who premiered Pärt's most famous work first saw the score of the Tabula Rasa of 1976, they cried out, “Where is the music?" Although Pärt's style can certainly be labeled minimalist, one cannot deny that this music is something altogether new and different from traditional minimalism. Its minimalist characteristics lie not in repeated melodic figures, but in the limited quantity of notes that are used and the concept of extended time.
Many listeners may feel [that his works] lack variety and contrast, but I’d argue that Pärt’s use of materials is restrained, not restricted: why include more when you can achieve so much with so little? Maybe ‘essentialist’ is a better label than minimalist for a composer who concerns himself so diligently with floating melody, rich sonority and honest spirituality.
Before exploring the similarities between Pärt’s style and the traditional definition of the minimalist style, we must first determine what this definition is.
Minimalism: Traditional Definition
The music we now refer to as minimalist has its roots in early forms of process music. Schoenberg and Stravinsky often based their compositions on the ‘working out’ of a particular scheme, whether rhythmic, tonal, textural or other. These early processes differ from more contemporary ones in that they were inaudible. For example, it is not readily apparent that Stravinsky used a thickening texture as a process or compositional device for the first movement of the Symphony of Psalms. Also, it is not easy or even humanly possible to aurally trace the activity of one particular tone row in any 12-tone composition. However, in the mid-1960’s, composers began to write compositions that contained easily audible processes. “These processes involve extended repetitions of deliberately limited material, within which a series of minute changes slowly and gradually evolve; as a result, the listener can hear the process unfolding. A great many terms have been coined to describe this phenomenon . . . . Most people, however, use the term minimalism.”
Silence is an extremely important minimalist technique. This can range from small to extended periods of silence within a work or a work that is based entirely on silence, such as John Cage’s 4’ 33”. The opposite of complete silence is continuous sound. Minimalist ‘philosophy’ subscribes to the belief that if “the duration is extremely long - a matter of hours rather than minutes - the single event can become enveloping and all-encompassing.” This is accomplished through the use of drones and sustained sonorities . Many minimalist composers make use of extended drones, endlessly repeated chords and sustained textures. These devices also cause a composition to become harmonically static.
Even without a definition of the term minimalism, one can deduce from the word alone that this style involves the use of a limited amount of materials. These materials are manipulated in order to achieve rhythmic, tonal and textural complexity. The goal of many of these composers is to achieve the maximum complexity with the minimum materials. Perhaps the most important minimalist technique is repetition and gradual change. A phrase or motive may be repeated over and over, most often at a rapid pace, but each time something is slightly altered. These changes affect the melody as well as the overall rhythmic scheme. Gradual change can also be accomplished through rotation. “By beginning successive statements of a melodic or rhythmic pattern at different points within the pattern, the order of elements can be rotated.” Texture construction is also accomplished through repetitive patterns as individual members enter or leave the texture. All of these transformations may be instantly apparent to the listener or recognition may take several minutes. Most often, some kind of process is involved with this technique. These types of compositional devices have existed throughout music history, in one form or another. However, minimalist composers place much more importance on them, and these devices become the essence of the composition. In contrast to earlier practices, these techniques are almost always related to some sort of process. These types of compositional devices “become virtually immobile aesthetic objects in their own right.” We can now go on to examine how the style of Arvo Pärt compares to this ‘traditional’ definition.