Relationship of Music to Text
The relationship of music to text in Pärt’s works is similar to that in early organum or in the declamatory writing of Ockeghem, in which all parts sing identical rhythms. Except for rare instances where short melismas are used, each syllable is assigned only one pitch. Also, Pärt may immediately repeat only short sections of text when appropriate, but not single words or syllables. This he also borrows from the Gothic period. Hughes states, “Another principle we can infer from the overwhelming evidence of the manuscripts: text was never repeated. Exceptions are in a few special genres and a few rare pieces, refrains, and where the Biblical source justifies the repetition.” There is another medieval connection in Pärt’s works in that the music itself fails to echo the meaning of the words. Hughes continues, “Again, the music does not attempt directly to illustrate or even express the words: in which it resembles medieval music and is distinct from a Renaissance polyphonist like Byrd, even when he’s writing liturgically.”
To draw an analogy from art: the non-representational, symbolic art of the earlier Middle Ages cannot be understood as a primitive predecessor of the realistic, humanistic art of the Renaissance. Somewhere between the two is a radical change of attitude. In music, the composers of the Middle Ages were more likely to see the relation between text and music as one of abstract architecture, grammatical and syntactic structure, and perhaps even of acoustical properties rather than directly one of meaning. Sometimes, perhaps for the medieval mind, the significance actually lies in the formal presentation, the sentence, rather than in the substance, the words…Seeing the relationship between text and music as medieval people saw it enables us partly to address the opening question: are the texts to be understood? Yes, but not in the same way we would expect them to be understood…If the relationship between the text and the music is not one of measuring, then there is no reason for one kind of music to be appropriate for one kind of text…Since words and music were not related in any semantic or emotional way, a monophonic dance-song, a polyphonic spring-song based on it, a song of praise, and a lament may be indistinguishable in musical style.
Pärt’s music is much the same in that the words do not attempt to directly express any particular idea. However, even though the “substance” is not expressed, there is a pervading sense of suffering in many of Pärt’s post-1976 compositions. Strangely, he sets the Magnificat -- a text full of joyous praise to God -- in much the same way as he does the Stabat Mater, De Profundis and Passio domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem, which are all texts of suffering. For a text that begins with "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior," the music is strangely tragic. Whatever the text may be, most of Pärt's later works contain this theme of suffering. There exists no flamboyant gesture or element of bravado, only an introspective austerity that points to the unparalleled directness of the voice of God.