Arvo Pärt at 80

Chorale’s November concerts are built around the music of Arvo Pärt, in honor of his 80th birthday. A third of our selections will be by Pärt, the other two thirds by composers associated with him in one way or another. Arvo Pärt

Pärt was born in Estonia in 1935, during the brief window before World War II during which Estonia and the other Baltic countries were sovereign nations, before being taken over, first, by the Nazis, and then by the Soviet Union. The Soviet occupation profoundly impacted his musical development—little news and influence from outside the Soviet Union were allowed into Estonia, and Pärt had to make a lot up as he went along, with the help of illegally obtained tapes and scores, and under constant threat of harassment from the Soviet authorities.

His compositions are generally divided into two periods. His early works demonstrate the influence of Russian composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev, but he quickly became interested in Schoenberg and serialism, planting himself firmly in the modernist camp. This brought him to the attention of the Soviet establishment, which banned his works; it also proved to be a creative dead-end for him. Shut down by the authorities, Pärt entered a period of compositional silence, having "reached a position of complete despair in which the composition of music appeared to be the most futile of gestures, and he lacked the musical faith and willpower to write even a single note (Paul Hillier)." During this period he immersed himself in early European music, from Gregorian chant through the development of polyphony in the Renaissance.   The music that began to emerge after this period—a date generally set at 1976-- was radically different from what had preceded it. Pärt himself describes the music of this period as tintinnabuli —like the ringing of bells. It is characterized by simple harmonies, outlined triads, and pedal tones, with simple rhythms which tend not to change tempo over the course of a composition. He converted from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy, and began to set Biblical and liturgical texts, with an obvious faith and fervor which once again brought him into conflict with the Soviet regime.

In 1980, after years of struggle over his overt religious and political views, the Soviet regime allowed him to emigrate with his family. He lived first in Vienna, where he took Austrian citizenship, and then relocated to Berlin, in 1981. He returned to Estonia after that country regained its independence, in 1991, and now lives alternately in Berlin and Tallinn.

Chorale will perform a chronological range of Pärt’s a cappella sacred music, beginning with Summa (1977), an austere setting of the Latin Credo which clearly demonstrates the early development of his signature tintinnabular style; Bogoroditse Djevo (1990); Zwei slawische Psalmen (1997); Nunc dimittis (2001); and Da pacem Domine (2004). We don’t intend our concert to be an academic display of Pärt’s development, but I do think listeners will be interested to hear how these works differ from one another, reflecting his growing confidence in his materials, and his growing ease at using these materials to express the emotional depth of his religious faith, moving from the strictly abstract toward something which transcends technique and procedure, and manages to fill a deep human need in those who experience his music.