Born on September 11, 1935, in Paide, Estonia. Education: Degree in composition, Tallinn Conservatory, 1963. Memberships: American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1996. Addresses: Record company--ECM Records, Postfach 600 331, 81203 Munich, Germany.

Estonian-born composer Arvo Pärt writes compositions that reflect his study of medieval musical forms. His work also reveals his deep Christian faith, especially the pieces commissioned to commemorate Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches and liturgies. While his early work was influenced by Russian neoclassical composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, Pärt later adopted a quieter, more meditative approach to composition for his Symphony No. 3. In 1976 he developed what he named tintinnabuli, or the tintinnabulation method of composition. Derived from the Latin for "little bells," Pärt described his technique in the liner notes of his Fratres album as the evocation "of bells, the bells' complex but rich sonorous mass of overtones, the gradual unfolding of patterns implicit in the sound itself, and the idea of a sound that is simultaneously static and in flux."

The tintinnabulation method is a minimalist approach that resembles chant and other types of medieval music. In a quotation cited on the All Music Guide website, Pärt explained: "I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements--with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials--with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation."

Pärt's tintinnabulation technique is apparent in such works as Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi Secundum Joannem, Te Deum, Silouan's Song, Magnificat, Berliner Messe, and Kanon Pokajanen, which feature choral support from such vocal groups as the Hilliard Ensemble and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. These works prompted Evan Carter to note in the All Music Guide: "Throughout Arvo Pärt's career, he has demonstrated a voracious musical curiosity and daring experimental spirit that has allowed him to move beyond a secure place as Estonia's premiere composer to become perhaps the best known choral and sacred music scorist of his time."

Pärt was born on September 11, 1935, in Paide, Estonia, and was raised in Tallinn. He served as recording director and composer of music for film and television for Estonian Radio from 1958-67. He studied composition under Heino Eller at the Tallinn Conservatory, graduating in 1963. In 1960 he completed his first orchestral work, Necrolog, which he dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. The work is of note because it was the first Estonian work to employ the dodecaphonic (12-tone) method of musical theorist and composer Arthur Schoenberg. In 1962 he won first prize in the All-Union Young Composers' Competition for his cantata Meie aed (Our garden) and oratorio Maailma samm (Stride of the world). The first was composed for a three-part children's choir and orchestra, and the latter for chorus and orchestra. Both pieces display the influences of Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Another composition from this period, Solfeggio, was a one-page choral work that is notable, according to Lyn Schenbeck in Choral Journal, because it "actually consists of a series of major scales; it looks like an exercise, but the manner in which the scales are voiced makes it a lovely, accessible piece." Pärt dedicated Symphony No. 1 ("Polyphonic") to his professor Heino Eller, and followed it with Perpetuum mobile in 1963, a piece that extrapolates from the pitches employed in Symphony No. 1 and adds a new rhythm relying on two sets containing 12 figures of equal duration.

Dissatisfied with the direction of his music, Pärt began to experiment with musical collage. His remarks to Merike Vaitmaa in the liner notes for Arvo Pärt, Cello Concerto "Pro et Contra"; Perpetuum mobile; Symphony No. 1 ("Polyphonic"); Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3, reprinted on the website, explain that these collages "were an attempt to replant a flower in alien surroundings (the problems of suitability of tissue; if they grow together into one, the transplantation was the right move). Here, however, the idea of transplantation was not in the foreground--I wished rather to cultivate a single flower myself."

Pärt's collage method relied on the inclusion of "borrowed" music from such composers as Bach and Tchaikovsky. This technique is perhaps most noticeable in Pärt's Collage über B.A.C.H., composed for strings, oboe, harpsichord, and piano, and features a Bach saraband for oboe and harpsichord. Similarly, Symphony No. 2 contains a portion of Tchaikovsky's "Album for Children." Pro et contra doesn't directly borrow music from another composer, but features Pärt's imitation of baroque music. Pärt's 1968 composition, Credo (for piano, orchestra and chorus), borrows a piano solo from Bach's C Major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which also requires the orchestra and singers to improvise during sections in which the pitch range is specified, but the notes are not.

After debuting Credo, Pärt devoted three years to the study of medieval music. He showed particular interest in Notre Dame organum (the beginning of polyphany) and French and Flemish choral music. Quoted by David E. Pinkerton II on the approach of such medieval composers as Machaut, Ockeghem, Obrecht, and Josquin des Prez, Pärt stated: "The spirit of the music was objective. Composers strove for a cool balance of musical elements within a strong formal framework, an ideal evident in all the essential characteristics of the music ... a playing down of purely sensuous appeal." His intensive study of medieval forms resulted in his 1971 Symphony No. 3, notable for the quieter direction his composition displayed, as well as its reliance on melody, tone, and rhythm in place of the dissonance of his work of the mid-1960s. In 1972, he composed Lied an die Geliebte.This symphonic cantata was the last piece he would compose for four years.

In 1976 Pärt introduced his first composition that marked his radical new style. Für Alina was a piano work that introduced Pärt's new tintinnabulation theory. It relied on a quieter approach attained through a predominance of open intervals, extended pedal tones, silent intervals, and widely spaced pitches. Pärt explained to Richard E. Rodda in the liner notes for his Telarc release Fratres: "Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers--in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises--and everything that is unimportant falls away." Pärt's music typically revolves around the notes of a single triad, which denotes the tonal center of the composition.

The use of silence in Pärt's musical compositions after 1976 lend them gravity and a sense of quiet devotion, which underscores the religious nature of the pieces. In the liner notes to the 1977 release of Tabula rasa, Wolfgang Sandner noted: "Pärt's cryptic remarks on his compositions orbit around the words 'silent' and 'beautiful'--minimal, by now almost imperiled associative notions, but ones which reverberate his musical creations."

Writing in St. Paul Sunday, critic Bill McGlaughlin noted: "What is interesting in Pärt's music is what is not there. There is little rhythmic complexity, no extravagant use of orchestration, no self-conscious harmonic display or dissonance. What we do find is a straightforward flowing rhythm, reminiscent of chant, and a very spare harmonic palette of pure intervals." These intervals, McGlaughlin, continued, evoked a sense of spirituality: "When we hear these intervals sung in a large, resonant space, like a cathedral, they have a miraculous effect. The two notes a fifth apart, C and G, for example, start to generate other sounds. They fill in the chord. We glance around the cathedral, wondering, looking for an angel choir.... Angels or overtones? It doesn't matter. Arvo Pärt's simplicity touches us deeply."

by Bruce Walker

Arvo Pärt's Career

Estonian Radio recording director and composer of music, 1958-67; composed first orchestral work, Necrolog, 1960; entered self-imposed sabbatical from composition to study medieval music, 1968; finished Symphony No. 3, 1971; the composition Credo banned in Estonia; developed compositional style he labeled "tintinnabulation," finished first composition in this style, the piano composition Für Alina, 1976; emigrated to Vienna, became Austrian citizen, 1980; emigrated to West Berlin, 1982; released best-selling album Litany, 1996.

Arvo Pärt's Awards

All-Union Young Composers Competition in Moscow, first prize for Meie aed (Our garden) and Maailma samm (Stride of the world), 1962; Estonian Music Prize for Tabula rasa, 1977.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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