Arvo Pärt: the simple and the complex, the modern and the ancient

Some reflections on Arvo Pärt's win at the Classic BRIT Awards.

So Arvo Pärt has won Composer of the Year at the 2011 Classic BRIT Awards, ahead of fellow nominees Eric Whitacre and Karl Jenkins. This shouldn't really come as too much of a surprise. Whitacre and Jenkins are fine composers, but Pärt, the 75-year-old Estonian, is regarded almost reverentially in parts of the British music community. And why not? England offers a multitude of choirs specialising in precise tuning and expressive restraint, and an abundance of remarkable acoustics in which they can perform – all of which is ideally suited to music written in Pärt's signature style, tintinnabuli. An Englishman, Paul Hillier, has had a big hand in rendering Pärt's works accessible to audiences outside the former USSR. (The University of Sydney gave Pärt an honorary doctorate some years ago, but still we don't see much of his music performed in Australia – though Paul Stanhope and his Sydney Chamber Choir may yet have a thing or two more to say about that).

However much Pärt is now part of the furniture in Britain, though, he was a late discovery for the musicians there, and in fact was barely known in the Isles before the mid-1980s. A flurry of activity, beginning in 1976, saw him produce the remarkable group of compositions for which he is now chiefly known and celebrated. These works, among them Tabula Rasa (1977), Cantus (1977), Spiegel im Spiegel (1978) and Passio (1982), were the first in the tintinnabuli style. Passio saw a change to predominantly vocal compositions, with which Pärt proceeded to fortify a grateful British chapel tradition somewhat lacking in contemporary compositional heroes, and the rest is history. But the bell-like tintinnabuli emerged from a surprising compositional biography, with which I doubt many BRIT award voters could claim much familiarity. In 1976, Pärt was 41 years old and had been composing professionally for nearly two decades. The fluency with which he apparently assembled piece after piece in the 1970s and 1980s was hard-won indeed, and, with Pärt's career still going strong in 2011, the important story of his early years is worth briefly mentioning, along with a couple of other key elements of his work.

Pärt's musical apprenticeship in Tallinn was subject to Soviet cultural edicts, and in particular the mandatory aesthetic of "socialist realism". Some early experiments with serialism provoked official disapproval and even public rebuke. For a time, Pärt made his living by writing film music. Meanwhile, his "serious" compositions revealed a preoccupation with serial procedure and collage techniques. Both loom large in Credo (1968), a meditation on order and chaos for piano, choir and orchestra which unambiguously professes Pärt's illicit religious convictions, wreaking havoc on Bach's C-major prelude en route. Credo marks a clear point of crisis in the composer's search for a musical identity, and eight years of near silence followed it.

Pärt's early works demonstrate a fascination with predetermined schemes and musical processes – a fascination noticed (and shared by) Steve Reich, among others. He habitually structures a pared-down set of musical elements to yield a specific overall effect – in his own words, tasking himself with finding "the appropriate system for the gesture". The tintinnabuli style maintained this discipline, while also translating it into the strikingly different soundworld of Pärt's Russian Orthodox faith. Basic to the "grammar" of tintinnabuli is a homorhythmic two-part texture in which a triad is combined with a diatonic scale. One voice (the so-called "M-voice") moves in diatonic steps to or from a focal pitch. The other (the "T-voice") is derived from the M-voice according to fixed procedures, and sounds against it using only notes from a given triad. The resulting interplay of diatonic consonance and dissonance, tethered to focal pitches and occasionally to drones, is a strong aural feature of all the tintinnabuli works. The innovation with which Pärt has managed to deploy this simple technique across a raft of different works in the last 35 years is arresting indeed.

The simplicity and "determinability" of Pärt's music pose knotty questions of creativity and authorship, and his reception history is interesting (if unpolished). As Maria Cizmic notes, Pärt supporters are usually mythmakers, "elid[ing] musical stasis and the influence of early music and religion to declare tintinnabuli to be 'timeless' in a universalising sense". They loosely ally tintinnabuli and its effects with the transcendent or otherworldly, and, in doing so, they often overlook the composer's own, conscious, organisational control. Meanwhile, Pärt's detractors notice the non-developmental nature of tintinnabuli, its immobility, and its dependence on older styles, and deny the "depth" of his music, and consequently its worth. For them, the simple fades too quickly into the trivial.

Both species of criticism ultimately confuse cause and effect. Pärt's simplicity and predictability ultimately guarantee his music's stability and identity – they are hallmarks of engagement with his material, rather than the opposite. A 1977 note by Pärt's wife Nora observes that "transparency becomes one of the factors of the general aesthetic effect [of tintinnabuli]. The listener is as it were invited to become a co-composer". The doublethink required to rework this as "automatic", a revocation of compositional agency, betrays above all a disinclination to value the aesthetic programme itself: usually, the orientation of the soul towards the divine through the uncluttered contemplation of the Word.

The twilight of Pärt's career its little studied, but, since 2000, there are clear signs of departure from tintinnabuli in its purest style. Instrumental works, too, are on the rise again, and in 2008 the composer wrote his first symphony in four decades – a work that had much to do with his success at the Classic BRITs (despite being subtitled Los Angeles). I'd be hesitant to read a vein of secularism into Pärt's more recent activities – his religious conviction has informed his every note for so long – but his dedication of the win to Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a most unusual foray into terrestrial affairs for a man who normally keeps both eyes fixed firmly on his God. Whatever his next move, long may the British continue to celebrate this intriguing composer, whose music so paradoxically combines the simple and the complex, the modern and the ancient.

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Chris May
Chris is a musicologist, chorister, arranger and occasional composer. He hails from Sydney but now lives in Oxford, where he is researching for a doctorate on the music of Arvo Pärt. Chris was brought up with classical music from his earliest years by his mother, Classic FM broadcaster Marian Arnold. These days their tastes have diverged somewhat. Chris has also worked in the law and plays a lot of Scrabble in his spare time. Here he will be posting ramblings and reviews about all kinds of music.
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