Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“The Bright Sadness of Arvo Pärt” first appeared in the March 2002 issue of Touchstone.
The Bright Sadness of Arvo Pärt
Arvo Pärt (Oxford Studies of Composers)
Recordings of Music by Arvo Pärt:
I Am the True Vine
reviewed by Dale Nelson
In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis relates that he once heard a Zulu war song—a recording, we must assume. Far from suggesting to him the attack of spearmen, it sounded “wistful and gentle” to him. Lewis doubted that there is a universal musical language in which “certain airs” correlate with “certain emotions.”
Some of Arvo Pärt’s admirers think they hear in his works, in the words of reviewer Jon Andrews, a “floating, timeless quality.” Poet Rika Lesser wrote to Pärt, “Yours is the only music I’ve ever wanted to live inside. Sometimes I wish that the music would stop, congeal, erect a lasting structure around me, one that would silently vibrate and, resonating, enclose me. Forever.” Such listeners come near to saying, if they do not quite claim it as an accomplished fact, that there is in Pärt’s music something that gives them admission to a realm of the spirit that transcends time. There will be those who, with Lewis, doubt that any mortals compose music that is universal—that could as readily be the expression of a given state of the soul of a first-century Armenian as of a pre-colonial Iroquois.
The Importance of Silence
People writing about Pärt, and the composer himself, make much of “silence.” “Silence”—an unusual subject for the index of a book on a composer—has more page references than all but a few other entries in Paul Hillier’s study of Pärt. In the book’s first chapter, Hillier relates silence with the Orthodox mystical prayer of the heart, or hesychasm. Such silence is necessary when one aspires to, or attains, a state of “constant watchfulness over heart and mind, [with] an attitude of listening to God.”
Pärt sees silence as fundamental for his characteristic tintinnabuli style, which suggests plainsong and bells. Hillier quotes him:
And, in an interview with Richard Kostelanetz, Pärt said, “Silence is the pause in me when I am near to God.” But then he withdrew that dictum. “No, don’t write that down; it’s not true.” However, it seems that the sacredness of silence, or the silence surrounding the sacred, will be held as a notion characteristic of Pärt’s musical thought.
For example, a short piece by Pärt, Psalom (Psalm), is described by Hillier as “tiny, almost evanescent,” its “nine varied statements of a single melodic idea . . . vanishing into silence” as soon as they are “brushed into being.” It’s a satisfying piece on its own merits, but perhaps has little resemblance to anything in the Psalter. Dominic Aquila, writing in the journal Image, also lingers over silence as something at the heart of Pärt’s music. “Pärt does not see silence as sterile and empty, but as fecund. In silence there is the promise that everything can be re-created.” Silence need not denote “extinction or exhaustion,” but can be “the sign of a new beginning.”
That silence is apt to be connected with religious feeling is obvious. “Let all mortal flesh keep silence,” to quote the first words of Gerard Moultrie’s hymn based on lines from the Liturgy of St. James. And many will like the account, quoted by Dale C. Allison in The Silence of Angels, from an apocryphal gospel, which states that when Christ became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin,
The canonical Scriptures, though, emphasize speech, dialogue, and proclamation more than silence. The “Let there be” commands of the Creator inaugurate the biblical record, which ends with Christ’s “Surely I am coming quickly,” and St. John the Theologian’s response, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” and a concluding benediction. The apocryphal Nativity narrative may be charming, but the biblical Nativity tradition gives us angelic proclamations and mortal responses, and when someone is silent there, it is because he has been stricken dumb as a penalty—as a penalty not for voicing his doubt, but for doubting. Heaven is not silent, nor is that earthly worship which, united to heaven’s, cries, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth!”
Pärt & Bach
To contrast Pärt’s aesthetic of silence with the thought of J. S. Bach is instructive. Bach bought a three-volume Bible commentary by the Lutheran divine Abraham Calov in 1733. It has survived, with his annotations, to our day. These notes show Bach pondering the biblical warrant for church music, which Calov traced to King David’s appointment of three “guilds of Levitcal musicians” (John Kleinig, “Bach, Chronicles, and Church Music,” in Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology 9:3 [Holy Trinity, 2000], pp. 7–10). Calov wrote that these musicians “were to turn God’s word into spiritual songs and psalms and sing them at the temple set to the accompaniment of music played on instruments.” Bach marked the passage, and wrote, “N. B. This chapter is the true foundation for all God-pleasing church music.” Elsewhere in his copy of Calov, Bach wrote that “together with the other arrangements for the divine service [liturgy], music too was instituted by God’s Spirit through David.” Bach was confident in the rightness and even necessity of such proclamation. Lutherans place great emphasis on God working specifically through the “means of grace,” i.e., Word and Sacrament; Bach understood the sung word, and not only the preached word given in the sermon, to be included here, when he wrote, “In a reverent performance of music God is always present with His grace.”
There is no need to think that Pärt would disagree, especially since his texts are generally biblical or liturgical. And yet he seems to lack Bach’s confidence that in music made and performed according to the Word, God actually ministers to his people. In his settings of a text, he may deny to any particular words a treatment that would make them distinct from other words. In the Missa Sillabica and the often lovely Berlin Mass, each syllable has its note, but no syllable is individually noteworthy.
Bach, by contrast, was attentive to the individual words. Commenting on the “Esurientes” of Bach’s Magnificat, for example—the passage proclaiming that the poor have been filled with good things and the rich sent away empty, Edward Tatnall Canby says the music “is both wistful and sly, as if in satisfaction at the justice of it all; note the curiously missing final note to the flutes’ ornamental melody, perhaps ‘taken away’ as from the rich!” One readily thinks of the descending notes employed for the “Et incarnatus est” and the robust treatment of the “Et resurrexit” of the Credo section of the B Minor Mass. Pärt might suggest, though, that such music can overwhelm the words in the ears of some listeners; and after absorbing music by Pärt, one can feel, as it were, hustled along by vigorous passages in Bach. Of course, no one need choose between Bach and Pärt.
Nor need we take it that Pärt, in—usually!—refusing to dramatize a text, has yoked the words to essentially freestanding music. Take his Summa, a setting of the Nicene Creed. (Incidentally, although Pärt is Orthodox, he retains the “Latin” filioque when setting this creed.) Every clause is given its due emphasis, as if the composer is eschewing any personal, imaginative attraction to, say, the doctrine of the Incarnation at the expense of eschatology. The piece, composed before Pärt left the Soviet bloc, is not defiant, but determined—determined to enunciate each truth. Writing Cantate Domino, with a text from Psalm 95, Pärt rises to the occasion with a very cheerful setting.
Bach wrote church music, while Pärt mostly writes for the concert hall. Still, one wonders what Bach would have made of Pärt’s beautiful setting of The Beatitudes. The singers’ recitation ends with a firm and joyous “Amen,” and the organ, which to this point has supplied simple, but rich, pedal notes, now bursts into a toccata-like sequence. But, Paul Hillier adds, this diminishes into a “rather inconclusive ending.” (Listeners may decide whether they prefer the slower performance of this work on the De Profundis CD or the performance on the Sanctuary disc.)
Austerity & Suffering
Perhaps Pärt cherishes silence as can only one who grew up in the midst of debased language but would not accept it. Born in 1935 in Paide, Estonia, he began musical study in 1958, after his military service obligation was met. Pärt’s early compositions were serialist in character, and the head of the All-Union Society of Composers censured him for being influenced by Western modernism. At one point, Pärt’s works could be performed but not sold or bought. He entered the Russian Orthodox Church in 1972. Pärt emigrated to the West with his family in 1979, became an Austrian citizen in 1980, and settled in Berlin by 1981. His characteristic tintinnabuli style was developed by 1976. He has included Passio, the frequently recorded Fratres, De Profundis, and others among his “works of suffering.” Pärt said, “It would not have been difficult for the Apostles to have lived in the Soviet Union. And there are wonderful people like that there. Heroism can flower in that climate.”
Numerous people writing about Pärt have related information about his life in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, including his cautious allusions to Christian themes and his official proscription. His music’s “purity” often has an obviously mathematical, logical quality—perhaps providing momentary irony, given the Communist quest for ideological purity. Pärt’s Silentium is not displeasing, but it gives a first impression of metronome-like regularity as an idea is worked out. The structure of his Cantus may be too apparent to draw most listeners to frequent playings. Critics complain of the extreme simplicity of Sarah Was Ninety Years Old, in which, in the words of Josiah Fisk, “long minutes” are devoted to a slow drumbeat. Hillier thinks the work, whose title overtly refers to the long, long wait of Abraham’s wife till she bore a son, allegorically represents Pärt’s own journey through years in which his writing was suspended until he devised his characteristic musical language.
Pärt’s name is often linked with that of John Tavener, with whom he eventually became personally acquainted. However, they developed their musical styles independently. Litany, a 1994 setting of sentence prayers by St. John Chrysostom (in English) perhaps sounds more “Taveneresque” than usual for Pärt. Hillier says that Tavener and Pärt (and Henryk Górecki) do, indeed, offer music characterized by “directness of feeling, transparency of form, austerity of mood, economy of gesture.” Someone who likes the music of the one will find the music of the other interesting. But they are, overall, not all that similar. An obvious difference is Tavener’s exploration of varieties of instrumental color—including inventive sounds from studio-engineered tapes, bandir drums, Tibetan temple bells, and a jazzy saxophone—and startlingly contrasting blocks of musical material, while Pärt usually writes for unaccompanied voices or small-scale musical ensembles and conveys an impression of seamlessness. Pärt’s Miserere (see below) and works by Tavener such as Innocence have a conceptual similarity, though.
Pärt’s music has a quality that listeners try to suggest by calling it “timeless,” but Peter Phillips, writing in The New Republic, correctly says, “Pärt’s aspirations to infinity notwithstanding, his music is created in a particular time and place, in a concrete historical and artistic context.” Pärt’s music often, though not always, seems to evoke a generalized, nonspecific sense of “the sacred,” as well as, obviously, of “ancientness.” For avowedly Christian music it is not, perhaps, very plainly founded upon the Incarnation of the Son of God. Yet the Incarnation is suggested in Pärt’s work—not only by the intrinsic content of some texts, but also by the music’s “awareness” of suffering.
But the Incarnation is only suggested. For the witnesses of the Incarnate Savior, for the apostles, the opposite of worldly chatter, of Caesar’s corruption of language, is not so much silence, but right speech—the prayer of the silent publican standing afar off, but also praise, and proclamation to the world, as the believer’s response to the God who has already come to us in the flesh, and who continues to come to us. This God is hidden, not so much in a cloud of unknowing or in an interior chamber of silent, timeless communion, as in “weakness,” both in his first advent, in the form of a servant who laid down his life on a cross, and as he ministers to his pilgrim people in the (unimpressive!) means of grace. But weakness is the mode in which he chose, and chooses, to come to us to do mighty works. Perhaps this theology of the Cross will come to be more evident in works ahead, should Pärt, now approaching his seventieth birthday, continue to compose.
In the meantime, as a better description than “timeless” of a quality that comes across in much of Pärt’s music, I would suggest a phrase from the writing of Alexander Schmemann. In his book Great Lent, Schmemann said that even a person coming in from the street would detect a quality of bright sadness in the Orthodox services that lead up to Pascha (Easter). Schmemann wrote:
If this description sounds like something that the reader believes should be a component of churchly, Christian life, then he will probably find that Pärt’s music has something to say to him.
Suggestions for Listening
All of the recordings listed at the head of this article are at least very good. The Hillier recordings are often superb.
Even reviewers who like Pärt’s music may admit that their minds can wander when listening to much of it. For most first-time listeners, a disc offering a variety of relatively small-scale pieces is suggested: Either the De Profundis CD or the Sanctuary CD should do well. Here are comments on three of Pärt’s compositions that require less than 15 minutes for performance (see also the remarks above on other short works).
De Profundis: Anyone who enjoyed Philip Glass’s haunting music for the beginning and end of the film Koyaanisqatsi (1983) should hear this 1980 setting of the Latin text of Psalm 130 (129 Vulgate). Hillier says that the words of the psalm “almost insist” on the music beginning in the bass. It gradually rises to a “sustained, rather than a sudden, climax.” It’s a movement towards assurance.
Fratres: Pärt has written several different settings of this piece. A performance by the Chilingirian Quartet on a Virgin Classics CD that includes Pärt’s Summa and two works by John Tavener, The Last Sleep of the Virgin and The Hidden Treasure, has a more piquant quality than some other recordings of this quite effective work. The orchestral version on the Sanctuary CD is sweeter (and faster).
Magnificat: Hillier says this is “one of the happiest meetings of tintinna-buli technique and words of a non-penitential character,” conveying “the uplifted, tender joy of the Virgin Mother”; a “little masterpiece” that shows tintinnabulation “at its most supple and refined.” Some listeners may find the piece a bit wan, though.
Kanon Pokajanen, a more recent work than most of those mentioned in this article, is recommended to listeners who appreciate liturgical recordings. The piece, nearly an hour and a half in length, is in Church Slavonic for unaccompanied voices. It is more traditional, with fewer dissonances than some of Pärt’s other compositions. As often with Pärt, it has a minor tonality, but not such a strong sense of open fifths. Some of the odes—eight are sung—begin with proclamation, that is, with recollection of God’s work of deliverance for his people—Israel’s deliverance from Pharaoh (Ode I), or the deliverance of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the furnace of the tyrant (Ode VII), or with the Church’s message of salvation. The odes proceed to material designed to awaken a sense of God’s judgment and the Christian’s need for repentance. They often conclude with prayers to the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, for mercy. This two-CD recording could become a perennial Lenten selection for some listeners.
Passio, similarly, is likely to have few playings except in Lent, most appropriately on Good Friday, for it is a setting of the Passion narrative of St. John’s Gospel, chapters 18 and 19, with an announcement of the narrative at the beginning and a concluding prayer, “You Who have suffered for us, have mercy upon us. Amen.” Pärt declines to provide much obviously pleasing variety of color or dynamics, let alone tunes; Hillier writes of Pärt “render[ing] a text expressively” yet in a manner that is “free of willful interpretation.” Hillier says that Passio reflects the tradition of early music and continues it rather than imitating it, and is a work of widely attested power and beauty. He gives it an entire chapter, in a book with ten chapters.
Miserere “stands out” from Pärt’s other tintinnabuli works, “as a dramatic conception from beginning to end,” Hillier says. Accordingly, the piece as a whole sounds more like some of Tavener’s compositions, such as Innocence or even Fall and Resurrection, ritual dramas of a sort, than like Pärt’s more typical works. Such Tavener works have been described by Richard Steinitz as “theatrical tableaux,” in which, though the musical material is “strikingly contrasted,” it is also “essentially monolithic and non-developmental.” (I confess that these Tavener works are not my favorites.) This 1989 composition certainly “marks a rapprochement with the more conventional world of concert music,” as Hillier says.
Miserere begins minimalistically enough, with the opening verses of the Fifty-first Psalm, but, with a growing roar of timpani, interpolated verses from the “Dies Irae,” almost shouted by the choir, take over. The instrumentation includes two electric guitars! The effect, Hillier says, is as if a “gaping pit” had opened. This cataclysmic sequence gives way to the remaining verses of the psalm, which feature varying, sometimes lovely, accompaniment, and then the final “Dies Irae” verse, which now, however, is not terrifying, but “hushed in awe”: “King of awful majesty, Who freely saves those who are saved, save me, Thou fount of mercy.”
Dale Nelson is Associate Professor of Liberal Arts at Mayville State University in Mayville, North Dakota.
“The Bright Sadness of Arvo Pärt” first appeared in the March 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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