Grace Notes

Grace Notes

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s journey toward stillness has been halted by the roar and rawness of his latest piece.


The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, who turned 70 last year, may well be the most widely known living representative of what still passes for the classical tradition. Yet his music is not often featured on concert or radio programs, nor is it much used in divine worship, even though he often sets religious texts very simply for straightforward forces (choir alone or with organ or strings).

Its place is, rather, on the home stereo system–which is to say that its place is nowhere, coming out of nowhere, performed by singers and instrumentalists unseen, not present in our everyday world, outside our time.

A quietly remarkable documentary film by Dorian Supin, 24 Preludes for a Fugue (released on DVD by Idéale Audience), includes sequences in which the composer sits at a dining-room table to talk about himself, revisits sites of autobiographical interest in Estonia, prepares musicians, instructs students–does almost everything except have us hear his music, other than in rehearsal or class. The music is not seen in performance–and when it is, in a couple of filmed concert occasions that accompany 24 Preludes on the DVD, it is diminished by the visual aspect. Pärt’s music refuses the corporeal–a rejection possible only in the age of high-fidelity recording–and is not helped when the circumstances of its performance are brought into view; hence its suitability to ecclesiastical buildings, where, quite apart from any acoustic appropriateness, the eye will rest not so much on the musicians as on the architecture. Supin is therefore wise not to let us see performances in 24 Preludes, and wise again not to let us hear them, leaving his soundtrack to the natural sounds of the Estonian countryside, the reverberant atmospheres of small rooms and churches, and the soft sibilants of the composer’s voice, speaking in varying mixtures of Estonian, Russian and German. What we encounter–surrounding the music, pointing toward the music–is this composer’s most extraordinary quality of simplicity.

One scene has him sitting on the steps of a clapboard hut with an unidentified woman who later turns out to be his wife, Eleonora. The air is summer-heavy with insects and birds, over which we hear the following dialogue:

Arvo: When I was little, we used to eat tomatoes with sugar. [Pause.] You’ve never heard of it?
Eleonora: As far as I know, one can only put salt on a tomato. [Pause.]
Arvo: We ate them with sugar.

There is a lot of Pärt in this miniature exchange: the modesty but also the obstinacy, the delight in simple sensory pleasures, the dwelling in memory.

Perhaps it takes a little experience, a little aging, before people find the past coming alive within themselves, which could be why Pärt had to wait until he was 40 before discovering the map to his musical country. Born in Paide, Estonia, on September 11, 1935, and raised in Tallinn, he followed a fairly typical career path for a Soviet composer of his generation. Young in the early 1960s, he was the right age to take advantage of the cultural thaw that came in the last years of Khrushchev’s rule. He took note, but from a distance, of the serialism that was then all the rage in the West. But he was also–as few in the West at that time were, and none in the Communist world overtly–a religious artist. That was what caused difficulties when, in 1968, he produced a work for choir, piano and orchestra and called it “Credo.” At that point he stopped composing, not as a response to official criticism but because he felt he had reached the end of a road. He had looked forward with the Western avant-garde; now he wanted to look back, and for several years he devoted himself to studies of medieval music while remaining creatively almost silent.

The breakthrough came in early February 1976–the film shows him excitedly reliving the moment, with his sketchbook at the piano–when he found something new in ancient musical history. Within the resonance of a low B held by the sustaining pedal, a pianist’s two hands play a simple melody and its equally simple accompaniment. The marking of the score to Für Alina is “calm, sublime, listening into oneself”; the performer is invited to play as if picking out something recalled from long ago. And indeed, there is in this music a strong sense of the distant past. The right hand’s melody consists of unmeasured phrases that sound like Gregorian chant, while the left hand’s note-by-note accompaniment suggests organum, a way of singing along with chant that has a history going back 1,000 years, to the beginnings of Western musical notation. This tiny piano piece, occupying just two pages and easily playable by a beginner, thus summons echoes from across a millennium.

Yet it is by no means medieval pastiche, contrary to Pärt’s detractors. The scale of Für Alina is not one of the classified church modes but B minor, and the left hand’s part–what a medieval musician might want to call the vox organalis–does not follow eleventh-century rules of voice leading but keeps, with just one exception, to the notes of the B minor chord. Since these notes are, more or less, overtones of the bass B hovering in the background, and since the pedal is all the time bringing forward resonances, the left hand persistently creates a twinkling effect. What is evoked here is not so much singing as hearing–not the chanting of monks in some Romanesque abbey church but rather the way the ear will glide up and down in listening to the spectrum of a great bell, as Pärt himself seems to have recognized in calling what he had discovered here, in Für Alina, his “tintinnabuli style.” A composition about listening, Für Alina belongs firmly to its own period, alongside the works of contemporaries far closer to the norms of Modernism, like György Ligeti, Helmut Lachenmann and Luigi Nono. As with them, its attitude to the past, straining for some echo, is that of the dispossessed.

Within two years of Für Alina, Pärt had developed his new style, often described as “liturgical minimalism,” in choral settings, as well as in instrumental scores that could be interpreted in diverse ways (notably Fratres, originally written for an early-music group) and in orchestral pieces. Tabula rasa (1977), a concerto for two violins with prepared piano and strings, is by far the most ambitious of these works and was responsible for Pärt’s emergence as an international figure. Manfred Eicher, whose Munich-based record company ECM had hitherto concentrated on jazz, heard a German radio tape and decided to release it with newly recorded material. The resulting disc, also called Tabula rasa, has remained among classical bestsellers for more than two decades and has seen “Mozart for Babies” selections, glamorous sopranos and Andrea Bocelli albums rising and falling around it.

That success is not hard to understand. Eicher’s record opens with a version of Fratres–an expansion of the chant-bell combination of Für Alina–in which the melody is played by the violinist Gidon Kremer and the accompanying harmony by Keith Jarrett. Kremer, by his intensity and attack, puts lightning bolts through the revolving melodic contours, until eventually, under the influence of Jarrett’s persistent if uneasy calm, he climbs up into the transcendental. And he is involved again in the title piece, vividly so, not least when he gives the spark–a superhigh note, almost a scream, above the second violin’s low A–that opens a long process of pacification.

Tabula rasa, the title work, remains astonishing three decades later. Once more there are echoes of bells (the prepared piano is effectively a cabinet of chimes) and of chant (in the unwavering flux of the melody), along with touches of Vivaldi’s “Winter” concerto. Once more this is white music, fixed in tonality: A minor in the first movement, D minor in the second. Once more, too, the music, though it seems ageless, is thoroughly modern in conception. Each of the movements is a rhythmic machine, with lines revolving in different geared ratios, and each conveys the experience of a composer who has worked in radio and recording studios. The opening movement, “Ludus,” has a string orchestra repeatedly appearing to fade in and out, as if recorded on a separate track from the soloists, while in the slow finale, “Silentium”–music of concentric ripples folding indeed into silence–the orchestral strings sound like an underwater chorus. Such impressions of simultaneous alternative spaces suit the piece particularly to the recorded medium, where not only can the music come from a never-known time (Pärt’s remote yesterday that is also today) but the geometry of its performance is also unfixed, left to the imagination.

So calm and so multidimensional, Tabula rasa is resonant with potential; one can imagine a great many further works exploring its world of abstraction and reverberating histories. But by the time the ECM record came out, in 1984, Pärt had moved in a different direction. Beginning with his seventy-minute St. John Passion (1982), a work scored for solo voices, choir and a small group of instruments, he devoted himself in his larger enterprises to settings of texts from the Christian tradition–settings that, however, can have little place in contemporary worship by virtue of their language (often Latin) or their instrumentation. Most of these works were designed as concert pieces, if not, as time went on, as pieces to be heard as recordings. Eicher and ECM remained faithful to him, bringing out a new disc every two or three years, usually centered on a big recent religious piece, with the wonderful exception of Alina (1999), which goes back to the earliest “tintinnabuli” compositions: three performances of the luminous and slow Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror) for violin or cello with piano, interspersed with two segments from a protracted improvisation by Russian pianist Alexander Malter on Für Alina.

This strange and beautiful record, demonstrating Pärt’s gift for achieving a simplicity that, for all its echoes, has never quite been heard this way before, contrasts with such other recent works as Miserere for soloists, choir and instrumental ensemble (1989), Litany for soloists, choir and chamber orchestra (1994) and the eighty-minute-plus Kanon Pokajanen for unaccompanied choir (1997). In these scores for large ensembles it is as if the composer has mistaken absence for presence. Pure consonance, which in Für Alina and Tabula rasa stood for a kind of Arctic emptiness, is now supposed to act as radiance. Sacred chant is not a distant prospect but re-enacted; sacred words ram back into the music a rhetoric it had blissfully surrendered. Melodic motifs that earlier hovered in exquisite neutrality are now given conventional expressive values, as tokens of joy or, more often, grief, distress and lostness. Where moments of pristine loveliness remain, as in Como cierva sedienta for soprano, choir and orchestra (1998), they are flanked by things brutal or banal. Harmonic gestures that were once fresh are used over and over again. From the elegant shadows of his first “tintinnabuli” pieces Pärt now tries to build a church, if a church of the abandoned. As for his very few instrumental works of the 1980s and ’90s, they repeat his achievements of 1976-77. In all this period, his short choral setting of the Magnificat (1989) stands out for its luminous recuperation of that earlier style and its restraint.

If Pärt’s works of the 1980s and ’90s convey a devotion not only to sacred texts but to sacred spaces (which is where his performances tended to take place), what brought him back to large-scale instrumental composition was the experience of an interior that, though not sacred, offered a cathedral-like scale and the presence of something immense and alien: the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London, as it was filled in 2002 with Anish Kapoor’s gigantic red sculpture Marsyas, looking like the hull of an ocean liner or a leviathan’s aorta. Almost at once the composer was at work on music to fit this environment: Lamentate for piano and orchestra, which plays for close to forty minutes and is the title work of his latest ECM release.

It is a weird piece. Described by the composer as “a lamento for us, struggling with the pain and hopelessness of this world,” it includes passages so dreadful they take on a kind of savage splendor. Brass and piano keep marching about on elementary intervals (rising major thirds), while timpani thunder, strings tear their hearts out and woodwinds rush about in confusion, creating altogether a monster in music. This happens three times. Beforehand, at the very beginning of the piece, comes a portentous fanfare, later converted by the strings into an elegy without losing its surplus expectations. And yet in the quieter music, the spirit of 1976-77 is touched again and there is music of great beauty. The section right after the first bombardment has high piano notes extended by strings and metal percussion, and the ensuing music for piano and orchestra evokes the immaculate expanse of Tabula rasa. Then, in an image of solitude, the focus is on the piano’s resonances, magically captured in the recording (which was made in Germany, not in the massive shadow of the Kapoor sculpture). Best of all is the final section, where the piano interleaves chantlike strains with the orchestra’s repeated waves of cadence and, right at the end, strings descend scalewise from a high ceiling like a benediction.

Twenty years ago Pärt said he would like to stop composing, as if his journey toward stillness were complete. But he is not done yet, and the roar and rawness of Lamentate indicate he still has much to express and to subdue.

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