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.