Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is one of those fortunate composers who has created his own world in music—and is beloved for it in his lifetime. The Estonian, who for the last decade has been the world’s most performed living composer, started his career writing neoclassical pieces influenced by the Russian greats, chiefly Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Then he discovered Schoenberg’s twelve-tone scale, serialism, and other twentieth-century experimental techniques and soon became a prominent member of the avant-garde. But Soviet censors disapproved, and in the late 1960s their unofficial censorship removed Pärt’s music from concert programs and sent him into what he called a “period of contemplative silence.”
For years he composed nothing, instead studying medieval choral music intensely in an attempt to find the roots of Western music. These transformative periods of creativity and reflection have marked the rhythm of Pärt’s career, and in 1976 emerged from his longest silence yet with a focus on sacred music and an entirely new mode of composition: tintinnabuli.
Pärt favors sustained unison notes and outlines of triads—long strides followed by thrilling leaps. Minor keys dominate, but majestically.
Pärt describes this unique sound as “like the ringing of bells,” and it has been popularized by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallin Chamber Orchestra, who have won multiple Grammys and other awards for their all-Pärt programs and recordings. On November 12 at Manhattan’s Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, the veteran Pärt conductor Tõnu Kaljuste led these two ensembles in a mass and prayers from Catholic and Orthodox liturgies. From the Latin Berliner Messe to the Church Slavonic Adam’s Lament, Pärt’s tintinnabuli works express a longing to transcend the gap between East and West and between the human and the divine.
The concert began in the West with Berliner Messe, a mass setting inspired by the city whre Pärt lived from 1981 to 2010. The “Kyrie” began softly, in pure, straight tones without vibrato. By the “Credo,” the shape of Pärt’s melodies became clear: he favors sustained unison notes and outlines of triads—long strides followed by thrilling leaps. Then the voices gather together again, one part hovering on a chord with the others circling around. Minor keys dominate, but majestically.
The influence of Gregorian chant echoes throughout the Messe, but perhaps this tendency can also be traced back to Pärt’s childhood: the middle notes on the Pärt family piano were damaged, so young Arvo used the high and low registers instead. In the concluding “Agnus Dei,” the steep intervals and the simple motifs, passed from soprano to bass, evoked a sense of height and depth, of the great space these prayers had to travel to reach their source. The effect, especially from a seasoned group like this one, is of choir and orchestra rotating around one another, or swaying together in prayer.
Some musicians take the measure of a choir by its vowels; others listen for consonants, especially that traitorous, hissing “S,” which blurred the Latin texts throughout the Messe. And in the instrumental Für Lennart in Memoriam, too, something was off: Kaljuste seemed to drag a lagging orchestra through the piece’s melodic lines, which are longer and more sweeping than the Messe’s.
This is especially evident in tintinnabuli pieces, which rarely change tempo; the sound only becomes by turns fuller and thinner, all four vocal parts swelling into a prayer and subsiding for a clear, ringing soprano solo or a high violin, which often provides the climax of a work in a note or two. Some call this “holy minimalism”—that is, when it works, as it did by the end of Für Lennart, much of which is in unison or parallel intervals. Later in the program, the orchestra swept through Silouan’s Song, inspired by a twentieth-century orthodox saint whose disciples Pärt befriended, in a performance that showed that Pärt’s high-low composition style also has an oceanic breadth.
Church Slavonic is a language blessed with bold consonants: “Z”s and “TZ”s and “SH”s. The choir delivered these with power and precision.
In Prayer after the Kanon, the choir fell into line. Kanon, a postlude to a cycle of odes in Church Slavonic, was originally performed a cappella according to the tradition in Russian sacred choral music. But in 2017 Pärt composed a new choir and string orchestra setting, which had its North American premiere in this performance. Church Slavonic is a language blessed with bold consonants: “Z”s and “TZ”s and “SH”s. The choir delivered these with power and precision, as if each consonant expressed the “bitterness” over the “mind[s] darkened through earthly passions,” according to the translated text. It was as if souls hung in the balance of the beat.
The choir returned briefly to Latin for a setting of “Salve Regina”—let no one say Pärt, who converted to Orthodoxy from Lutheranism, is not ecumenical—but soon switched back to Slavic languages with Adam’s Lament, which was the height of the program. Adam’s Lament is Pärt’s 2009 setting of a medieval Lenten prayer from the Russian Orthodox church. Modernized by St. Silouan, the prayer expresses Adam’s sorrow after leaving the garden, both for himself and for humanity after him: “There is an aching and deep regret in the soul that has grieved the beloved Lord,” the translation reads. As in Kanon, the choir threw their weight into every consonant.
Adam’s Lament layers unison notes in the bass with oscillating chords that move between the higher vocal parts and the orchestra. When Adam’s soul is “heavy” at being banished from paradise, all Pärt needs for the sorrow of the fall is a single bass note, which becomes, as it is sustained, “as wide as the sea.” As the lament climbs in dynamics and pitch—“Be merciful unto me, O Lord!”—the result was towering, like standing at the base of a cliff with the sun rising from behind it: the smallness of man, the grandeur of God.
This is the expanse that tintinnabuli traverses: the heights of the divine, and the depths from which man must ascend. The effect of Pärt’s music is often called a “bright sadness,” but this is not just about sacred music in a minor key. It’s what Pärt says he found in the long silences between his periods of creative activity: a way to write music that follows “the ascent and descent of the human heart.”