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"The essence and phenomenon of Arvo Pärt"

Arvo Pärt

was born in Estonia in 1935. He received his musical education first at the Children’s Music School in Rakvere, then at the Tallinn Music School for a brief spell before being drafted, and finally at the Conservatory in Tallin, where he studied with the distinguished Estonian composer Heino Eller. From 1958 he worked as a sound engineer on Estonian radio, and became a member of the Estonian Soviet Composer’s Union in 1961. During this early period he composed music for more than fifty films and plays. In 1980 he left the USSR and, after a short stay in Vienna, settled in West Berlin before eventually returning to Estonia in 1992. Throughout the 1960s Pärt composed art works using serial and collage techniques. In 1968 his Credo for piano, chorus and orchestra caused a political scandal. It is not a liturgical creed; however, its title was interpreted as a gesture of defiance and the piece was banned in the Soviet Union for more than a decade. Following this, Pärt went into a self-imposed period of reflection until 1976, composing very little. Pärt claims that during this time he studied the music that was available to him, including plainchant, Guillame de Machaut, Franco-Flemish music, and Josquin. As a result of this study he made an observation which was important to the development of his new style: “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifuly played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence comforts me.” At the time Pärt’s mature works were composed, musical modernism had left composers with the possibilities of myriad techniques at their disposal, but with no prevailing style.Composers found many solutions to the dilemma, including turning to music of the past, fusing music of different styles, mixing different styles into collages, randomizing music with aleatoric procedures, and by resorting to minimal use of materials. Pärt disconnected himself from modernism by turning not to the immediate past but to medieval and renaissance music. In an interview in 1999, he made a declaration that is key to understanding his musical technique: “I am tempted, he said, only when I experience something unknown,something new and meaningful for me. It seems, however, that this unknown territory is sooner reached by way of reduction than by growing complexity. Reduction certainly doesn’t mean simplification, but it is the way…to the most intense concentration on the essence of things.”

Period of reflection 1968-1976 the development of the tintinnabuli style. Pärt’s intensive and disciplined study of early music.

Pärt’s music has had the extraordinary influence on a diverse range of musicians.

The text is very important in Pärt’s music. The text leads music. Pärt wishes that people find their own answers in his music.

Melodic and triadic lines which share the sonic profile of sounding bells. The melodic M-voice and tintinnabuli T-voice are conceived not as two separate parts but as one sonic whole, characterized most succinctly by Nora Pärt in the formula “1+1=1”

Music composed after 1976 resists the label ‘modernist’ and is generally situated as a counter-modernist reaction.

Tintinnabuli is an antidote to modernism and minimalism, labeling it as “an indictment of the detritus of contemporary music and he describes its transformative potential using the example of Spiegel im Spiegel. This music offers us a “release from the confused plurality which characterizes the postmodern.”

Pärt’s music is elegantly simple, deceptively complex, visceral and remarkable.

Andreas Peer Kähler

Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince:

The desert landscape and the radiation from silence, which he associates with Pärt’s “self-imposed ascetism” as a key to understand his music and its idioms.

David Clarke

“The music of Pärt once again breath life into the corps of modernity.”

Robert Schwartz on Pärt

“Pärt’s emotional intensity, his quiet strength and simplicity, his meditative rapture, had brought a fleeting moment of repose to our hectic lives.”

Alex Ross

Several people have described to him how the “still, sad music of Arvo Pärt…became for them, or for others, a vehicle of solace.

American poet Rika Lesser

“Yours is the only music I’ve ever wanted to live inside. Sometimes I wish the music would stop, congeal, erect a lasting structure around me, one that was silently vibrating and resonating, enclose me. Forever.”

How unusual it is for the music of one composer to evoke the same positive response in so many people.

Why is analyzing it so difficult if its structure is so simple? It is not easy to talk about any type of music, because it resists confinement by mere words. Pärt said that people should find their own truth in his music.


Jostling tumult of contemporary musical culture.


Part’s style before 1976 and after

Modernist, experimenting with serialism, collage and pastische.

Tintinnabuli - counter modernist reaction.

TEXT in Pärt’s music

The text is often the fundamental generative agent for Pärt’s music.

“ The words are very important to me, they define the music.”

“The construction of the music is based on the construction of the text.”

“I have always been guided by texts that were particularly close to me and full of existential importance for me.”

“Humans have not changed much in the last two thousand years, which is why I always believe that the sacred texts are always very topical. In this view, there are no significant differences between yesterday, today and tomorrow, because there are truths that continue to have validity. Man feels now as then, and has the same need to free himself from his mistakes.”

The majority of Pärt’s choral works are in Latin, the universal language of the church. Pärt believes “Latin is nice…because it is not an everyday language”, and explains that “I would like to have distance with everyday language if I write music.” He brings the same sensitivity and creativity to whichever language he uses. The following is a list of languages Pärt has set, with a representative example of each:

Church Slavonic, English, Estonian, French, German, Italian, latin, Spanish.


Pärt spent a significant part of his life in a Soviet state and this has had a profound impact on him.

When asked if early in his career he wanted to be famous and whether he thought he might achieve it with the tintinnabuli music, he replied that he was not aware that he developed a musical-analytical technique that would be so fertile, nor was this his primary concern. He claimed, “I just wanted to stay alive.”

Pärt’s point of origin - SOUL - similarity

Empirical fact that diverse items and substances have very similar basic patters when exemined through a powerful microscope. If one were to imagine that the human soul could also be examined through a microscope lens, it could be expected that - at a certain degree of magnification - a comperable “netlike basic pattern” would be detected. In his Görlitz speech Pärt notes:

Perhaps one might call it ‘human geometry’, neatly sorted, quietly formed - but, most of all, beautiful. In this depth, we are all so similar that we could recognize ourselves in another person…I am very much tempted to see this beautiful and neat Ur-substance, this precious island in the inner seclusion of our soul, as the ‘place’ where, over 2000 years ago, we were told that the Kingdom of God would be - inside us. No matter if we are old or young, rich or poor, woman or man, colored or white, talented or less talented. And so, I keep trying to stay on the path that searches for this passionately longed-for ‘magic island’, where all people (and for me, all sounds) can live together in love.

And for me, all sounds - shows how we are to picture the connection between life and art in the tintinnabuli style: the same ideals apply to the composer’s handling of sounds and musical figures and in our relationships with the living environment. Hence, the goal in music is to advance to the deeper layers of primal pictures and substances which could be identified as musical archetypes.

Reduction (reducere Latin to lead back) means returning external variety to the common basis of archetypes.Turning to the archetypical means a humble overcoming of the personal ego, which partly dies with the first step, to be born again in various contexts and relationships to fellow human beings and God.


The secret of this timelessness is not how extensively its author perceived his own present but all of existence with its joys, worries and secrets…Art should concern itself with the eternal and not just the current.

Tintinnabuli (from the Latin word for ‘sounding bells).

The technique is seemingly simple, comprising just two musical lines, one of which moves in largely stepwise motion and the other which moves through the notes of a principal triad.

What is remarkable is that the method can offer such rich possibilities for compositional variety, all within a music that has broad aesthetic appeal. It is rare for a composer to create a new compositional system and even more rare for such a system to produce music that has such enormous popular and critical success.

M-voice and T-voice

The melody represents my sins and my imperfect being, whereas the second voice is the forgiveness that is granted to me. In this case, my subjective errors are being corrected.

“One line [the M-voice] is who we are, and the other line [the T-voice] is who is holding and takes care of us.”

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