Sunday, September 11, 8935

Arvo Part (b. 1935) - Canticle in Memory

Arvo Part (b. 1935)

Canticle in Memory of Benjamin Britten

Arvo Pärt (b. September 11, 1935, Paide, Estonia) is Estonia's most renowned composer, working in a minimalist style that employs hypnotic repetitions that is also influenced by counterpuntal elements.

Continuing struggles with Soviet officials led him to emigrate in 1980 with his wife and their two sons. Pärt lived first in Vienna, where he took Austrian citizenship; and then he re-located to Berlin where he still lives.

His most familiar works are Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten for string orchestra and bell (1977) and the string quintet Fratres I (1977, revised 1983), which he orchestrated for string orchestra and percussion, the solo violin Fratres II and the cello ensemble Fratres III (both 1980).

Pärt is often identified with the school of minimalism and more specifically, that of "mystic minimalism" or "sacred minimalism."

He is considered a pioneer of this style, along with contemporaries Henryk Górecki and John Tavener. Though his fame initially rested on instrumental works such as Tabula Rasa and Spiegel im Spiegel, his choral works have also come to be widely appreciated.

Pärt's musical education began at age seven. He began attending music school in Rakvere, where his family lived. By the time he reached his early teen years, Pärt was writing his own compositions. While studying composition with Heino Eller at the Tallinn Conservatory in 1957, it was said of him that "he just seemed to shake his sleeves and notes would fall out."

In this period of Estonian history, Pärt was unable to encounter many musical influences from outside the Soviet Union except for a few illegal tapes and scores. Although Estonia had been an independent Baltic state at the time of Pärt's birth, the Soviet Union occupied it in 1940 as a result of the Soviet-Nazi Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact; and the country would then remain under Soviet domination -- except for the three-year period of German wartime occupation -- for the next 51 years.

Arvo Pärt's oeuvre is generally divided into two periods.

His early works ranged from rather severe neo-classical styles influenced by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Bartók. He then began to compose using Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique and serialism. This, however, not only earned the ire of the Soviet establishment, but also proved to be a creative dead-end. When early works were banned by Soviet censors, Pärt entered the first of several periods of contemplative silence, during which he studied choral music from the 14th to 16th centuries.

In this context, Pärt's biographer, Paul Hillier, observed that "... he had reached a position of complete despair in which the composition of music appeared to be the most futile of gestures, and he lacked the musical faith and will-power to write even a single note."

The spirit of early European polyphony informed the composition of Pärt's transitional Symphony No. 3 (1971); and thereafter, he immersed himself in early music, re-investigating the roots of western music. He studied plainsong, Gregorian chant, and the emergence of polyphony in the Renaissance. The music that began to emerge after this period was radically different. This period of new compositions included Fratres, Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten, and Tabula Rasa.

Pärt describes it as tintinnabuli -- like the ringing of bells. The music is characterized by simple harmonies, often single unadorned notes, or triad chords which form the basis of western harmony. These are reminiscent of ringing bells. Tintinnabuli works are rhythmically simple, and do not change tempo. The influence of early music is clear. Another characteristic of Pärt's later works is that they are frequently settings for sacred texts, although he mostly chooses Latin or the Church Slavonic language used in Orthodox liturgy instead of his native Estonian language. Large-scale works inspired by religious texts include St. John Passion, Te Deum, and Litany. Choral works from this period include Magnificat and The Beatitudes.

It is for these latter works that Pärt is best known.

"Even in Estonia, Arvo was getting the same feeling that we were all getting. [...] I love his music, and I love the fact that he is such a brave, talented man. [...] He's completely out of step with the zeitgeist and yet he's enormously popular, which is so inspiring. His music fulfills a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion." -- Steve Reich

Arvo Pärt's music came to public attention in the West, largely thanks to Manfred Eicher who recorded several of Pärt's compositions for ECM Records starting in 1984.

Pärt has said that his music is similar to light going through a prism: the music may have a slightly different meaning for each listener, thus creating a spectrum of musical experience, similar to the rainbow of light.

A new composition, Für Lennart, written for the memory of the Estonian President Lennart Meri, was played at his funeral service on April 2, 2006.

In response to the murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow on October 7 2006, Pärt declared that all his works performed in 2006-2007 would be in commemoration of her death:

"Anna Politkovskaya staked her entire talent, energy and -- in the end -- even her life on saving people who had become victims of the abuses prevailing in Russia." -- Arvo Pärt
Pärt was honoured as the featured composer of the 2008 RTÉ Living Music Festival in Dublin, Ireland. He was also commissioned by Louth Contemporary Music Society to compose a new choral work based on St. Patricks Breastplate, which premiered in 2008 in Louth, Ireland. The new work is called The Deers Cry.

Pärt's music has been featured in over 50 films, from Väike motoroller (1962) to Promised Land (2004). Elements from the Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten were used in Léos Carax's film Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991); and a part of the composition was heard in Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11 while the audience confronts the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City.

[8935 J.L. Lewis / 8935 Part / 8935 Riley]