The Music Plays On — Happy Birthday Arvo Pärt

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Born on this day 85 years ago, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is one of the most performed and admired composers in the world. His music is unlike any other and is instantly recognizable, and yet its simple and contemplative sounds belie a complexity and deep philosophy that took years for Pärt to develop and nurture.

Arvo Pärt began his compositional career as an avowed modernist. His early music is certainly well-crafted, and in works like his cello concerto, Pro et contra, and his Symphony №1, one can certainly hear an enormous talent.

However, one didn’t start to hear Pärt’s voice until he began to explore religious text and music, which was frowned upon in Soviet era Estonia. He received deserved critical acclaim for works like his Credo from 1968, but his music started to become unofficially censured and his music started to disappear.

For the next eight years Pärt didn’t compose much at all, but extensively studied the music medieval and renaissance composers. In 1972, he converted to Orthodox Christianity and finally reemerged in 1976 composing in a completely new style, using a system of composition that he created called, tintinnabuli. In his words,

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.

and,

Tintinnabuli is the mathematically exact connection from one line to another…..tintinnabuli is the rule where the melody and the accompaniment [accompanying voice]…is one. One and one, it is one — it is not two. This is the secret of this technique.

One of his first compositions in this new style is Für Alina from 1976.

And Fratres from 1997.

Another is the now very famous Spiegel im Spiegel from 1978.

I’ve always enjoyed this very short but touching conversation between Björk and Pärt. It’s like a conversation between to sprites.

One of my personal favorites is this recording of Miserere by the Hilliard Ensemble.

Finally, this phenomenal performance from this last February, weeks before everything stopped is a very moving experience.

Written by

Music Director of the California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic

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