Let There Be Delight: Arvo Pärt at Oxford

Born in 1935 in the former Soviet republic of Estonia, Arvo Pärt is the pre-eminent religious composer of our time. His music is at once archaic and abstract-modern; it combines the contemplative devotion and ritual simplicity of medieval plainchant with neo-classical chorale. With its sense of space, stasis and light, the music also reflects something of the boundless immensity of the Baltic landscape and Estonia’s shadowy, sea-girt plains. Under communism, the music fell foul of the censors as it defied official atheism.

Pärt first came to notice in the West in 1977 with his exultant threnody, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, written for strings and tolling tubular bells. With its cascade-like sheets of sound, this hypnotic six-minute work developed Pärt’s now famous technique of “tintinnabula”, where melody acquires a steady-state, bell-like resonance. The great works that came afterwards – Tabula Rasa, Fratres, Berliner Messe – were all written with doleful bells in mind.

Now 87, Pärt has retired from public life and no longer gives interviews. His bearded, anchorite presence can still occasionally be glimpsed in Estonia at the Arvo Pärt Centre, which was opened in 2018, a gleaming modernist construction in the middle of a pine forest close to Tallinn. The composer’s archive is housed here – manuscript scores, sketches for compositions – but anyone can drop in. There is a 1,540-seat concert hall, with a bookshop and café attached.

Curated by Music at Oxford with the help of the Arvo Pärt Centre, from 18-25 November Oxford hosts a week-long celebration of the composer and his work, Arvo Pärt… and a Littlemore. It will consist of new arrangements of his music performed alongside talks, films, and work by younger composers influenced by Pärt, from Erkki-Sven Tüür in Estonia to the Ukraine-born Galina Grigorjeva. Pärt has strong links to Oxford; he holds an honorary doctorate from the university and, in 2000, composed Littlemore Tractus in honour of St John Henry Newman, who lived at the Oxford parish of Littlemore.

Like Stravinsky before him, Pärt has drawn from Palestrina, Tallis and other composers of Renaissance choral polyphony. His sombre 2004 choral work Da Pacem Domine was performed last May in the Estonian city of Narva on the Russian border. Its message of peace was not lost on the Estonian and Russian audiences in the wake of Putin’s assault on Ukraine. Under the baton of the Estonian conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, Da Pacem Domine is the Oxford festival’s centrepiece. The Estonian Philharmonic Choir will perform it as part of their evening concert, along with other works from Pärt’s canon, among them the 1990-1991 Beatitudes, which is set to words from the Sermon on the Mount (“Blessed are they which are persecuted”).

Pärt began his career as a composer at the Tallinn Conservatory in the 1950s. He won a Soviet state composition prize for children’s cantatas (which will be performed in the Olivier Hall, Oxford), but was increasingly drawn to Russian Orthodoxy. In the winter of 1980 he was presented with a Soviet state eviction notice, and “allowed” to emigrate abroad with his two sons and wife Nora (Eleanora) Supina, a musicologist and conductor of Jewish descent. In heavy snow their train left Tallinn for the west. At Brest-Litovsk, Pärt and his family were stopped by Soviet border police, who searched through the music scores, records and cassette tapes contained in the luggage. One of the guards wanted to check the tapes. “Let’s listen.”

What followed was a sort of spontaneous Mass liturgy; in the cathedral-like space of the station’s near-empty hall the strains of Pärt’s Britten Cantus welled up, and the police were reportedly transfixed. (“I saw the power of music to transform people”, Nora Pärt said years later.) At Vienna, Pärt was met by Alfred Schnittke, his composer friend, and by the Dresden-born head of the music publishers Universal Edition, Alfred Schlee, who gave Pärt a publishing contract and arranged for him and his family to stay in the Austrian capital before settling in West Berlin. It was not until 2010 that Pärt and his wife and children returned to live in post-Soviet Estonia.

Pärt’s mature music is often lazily described as “holy minimalist” owing to its supposed kinship to the repetitive drones of American minimalist composers such as Steve Reich (who reveres Pärt) and Philip Glass. But Pärt’s is a music that contains pain, sadness and a soul-stirring beauty. He is one of the few composers at work today whose work appeals to non-classical audiences – it is often used in film scores – and he is one of the most performed living composers in the world. His powerful meditation on man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Adam’s Lament, evolved out of a long monastic absorption in Orthodox liturgy, and premiered in Istanbul in 2010 at the Byzantine basilica of Hagia Irene. “Let there be delight”, said someone in the audience, before the church filled with a music of deep serenity and sorrow.

This article first appeared in the November 2022 edition of Prospect magazine