Playing the Pärt: the Estonian composer remembered on his 84th birthday, 11 September 2019




Arvo Pärt was born in in the Baltic republic of Estonia in 1935. His music suggests the contemplative devotion and ritual simplicity of medieval plainchant and Gregorian chorale, though it could only have been written today; it is at once archaic and abstract-modern. Perhaps it is merely romantic to suggest that this music, with its sense of space, stasis and light, reflects something of the Baltic landscape. Medieval German and Danish chroniclers spoke of a shadowy, sea-girt place called Estland with a boundless immensity of forest. When asked, however, Pärt says he does not think of his work as definingly Estonian; people may divine a “Baltic “otherness” in his sublimely bleak Fourth Symphony or in the tonal simplicity of his Magnificat for chorus, but Pärt does not. In 1972 he was received into the Russian Orthodox Church. He remains the pre-eminent religious composer of our time.


On his 84th birthday today, 11 September, Pärt (pronounced P-air-t) looks well for his years –  a bearded, anchorite-like presence with a surprisingly boyish humour. Accompanied by my London friends Julian Woodfield and Lucy Welsh (who took the photographs below), I met him in Estonia at the grandly named Arvo Pärt Centre, which was opened to the public in 2018, a modernist construction in the midst of pine forest close to the capital of Tallinn. Pärt’s personal archive is housed here – manuscript scores, sketches for compositions – but anyone can drop in. There is a 140-seat concert hall, with a bookshop and café attached. Pärt is often lazily described as a “holy minimalist” owing to a supposed kinship between his music and the repetitive drones of American minimalist composers such as Steve Reich (who personally reveres Pärt) and Philip Glass. The description is pejorative as it implies a thinness of musical content. Pärt’s is not a plangent New Age muzak for airport lounges: it contains pain, sadness and a soul-stirring beauty. He is one of the few composers at work today whose music appeals to non-classical audiences; its appeal is to the ear, rather than to the intellect.



Like Stravinsky before him, Pärt has drawn from the great composers of Renaissance polyphony such as Palestrina, Tallis and de Lassus, as well from Orthodox and Western Catholic sources. The repeated stark tones of his Orient and Occident, composed for orchestra in 2000, conjure an orientally tinted world of icons and church incense. The music is remarkably quiet and simple (it has that much in common with New Age ambient sound washes), and at times very slow-moving, but its simplicity springs from liturgical restraint and a monastic absorption in the word of God, not from an unthinking desire to soothe. “Modern man has plenty to wail about”, says Pärt, who should know. One of his greatest late works, the 1989 Miserere, is set to words from King David’s Psalm 51 (“Have mercy upon me, O God”). With its mood of rue and penitence, Misere considers human weakness and imperfection, and issues from the austere spirit of Lent. In 2011 Pärt was appointed to the Pontifical Council for Culture by Pope Benedict XVI.



Pärt first came to attention 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, five-minute work developed Pärt’s now famous technique of “tintinnabuli” where melody acquires a steady-state, bell-like resonance. The compositional method should not be taken literally – it is a poetical metaphor – but Pärt’s best-known works since the mid-1970s, whether instrumental scores such as Tabula Rasa and Fratres or grand choral works such as Berliner Messe are composed, Pärt maintains, with a doleful sound or sounding of bells in mind.

Pärt was a teenager when, in the early 1940s, he discovered the power of classical music in the northern Estonian town of Rakvere, where he was raised by his Lutheran mother and stepfather. Symphonies were broadcast by radio from loudspeakers in the market square, so he would bicycle repeatedly round the square, listening to the music. In 1957, Pärt enrolled as a student at the Tallinn Conservatory and became a sound engineer at Estonian Radio. He wrote music for films and won a Soviet state composition prize for a children’s cantata. Much of his composition from this time, with its atonal asperities and Dadaesque grotesquery, has an undercurrent of destruction and was bound to alienate the conservative-minded Moscow censors. Nevertheless it earned Pärt the respect of avant-garde composers resident in the West, among them the Italian Luigi Nono, whose neo-madrigals in memory of condemned anti-Fascist Resistance fighters and alienated factory workers Pärt admired.

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