Arvo Pärt

(b. 11 September 1935)

Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer of classical and sacred music, whose compositions have won worldwide acclaim since the 1970s. He invented the compositional technique tintinnabuli and has worked in styles influenced by minimalism and Gregorian chant.

Pärt was born in Paide, Estonia and was raised in Rakvere in the northern part of the country. He attended Tallinn Music Middle School where his love for music flourished. He entered the military service and played oboe and percussion in the army band. He then went on the study at the Tallinn Conservatory where he took composition classes with Heino Eller. During his student years he produced music for film and stage and composed various works for choirs. After graduation, from 1957 to 1967, he worked as a sound producer for Estonian radio.

Arvo Pärt’s compositions can be divided into two periods. His early works were composed using neo-classicism, highly influenced by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Bartok. He briefly turned to twelve-tone composition in the footsteps of Arnold Schoenberg, and was one of the first Soviet composers to do so, the evidence of which can be perceived in his Nekrolog of 1960. Part’s musical influences from outside the Soviet Union were only made possible by illegal tapes and scores. Many of his early works were banned by the Soviet censors, including his famous Credo for chorus, piano and orchestra, due to its religious title and its inspiration from religious texts.

His music fulfills a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.

In the mid-1960s, Pärt was awarded first prize in a composition competition organised by the All-Union Society of Composers.

In the 1970s Pärt began to study medieval and Renaissance music and around the same time, converted from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodox. In 1976, he re-emerged with a new compositional technique running throughout his compositions. He called it “tintinnabulation”, which was based on slow modulating sounds, such as those produced by bells and pure voice tones. His use of tintinnabulation is drawn from both the Eastern Orthodox tradition of sacred music and the medieval Notre Dame school of composition.

Arvo Pärt used this tintinnabulation in his three most celebrated works from the last century: Fratres for string quintet, Spiegel im Spiegel, Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten and Tabula Rasa. His Magnificat and The Beatitudes have become standard favourites for choirs all over the world. His Fratres was first composed in 1977 in the tintinnabuli style of composition. It is a set of vatiations on a six-bar melody, which sums up Part’s observation: “the instant and eternity are struggling within us”. He composed Fratres II for solo violin and for cello ensemble Fratres III.

A need to concentrate on each sound, so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.

In 1980, he emigrated to Vienna with his wife and two sons and then moved to Berlin a year later. He currently lives part-time in Berlin and the rest of the time in Tallinn. Pärt’s music became known in the West due to his collaboration with the German record producer Manfred Eicher who began to record some of Pärt’s compositions for ECM Records from 1984 onwards.

Steve Reich has had huge admiration for Pärt and wrote that “Even in Estonia, Arvo was getting the same feeling that we were all getting ... I love his music, and I love the fact that he is such a brave, talented man ... He's completely out of step with the zeitgeist and yet he's enormously popular, which is so inspiring. His music fulfills a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion."

Arvo Pärt has received numerous awards and honours: the Léonie Sonning Music Prize and the Best Choral Performance Grammy for his Da Pacem, performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by Paul Hillier. His Adam’s Lament won best Choral Performance Grammy in 2014. Pärt’s music has been used in various movies – he has at least 65 film soundtrack credits to his name, such as Fahrenheit 9/11, The Thin Red Line and There Will Be Blood.

Header courtesy of Orthodox Arts Journal
Other image courtesy of public domain

He's out of step with the zeitgeist and yet he's enormously popular, which is so inspiring.

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