Arvo Pärt’s In Principio

Arvo Pärt, like so many contemporary composers (particularly, for reasons that may have something to do with domination by officially atheist regimes, those of Eastern Europe), finds great inspiration in the liturgy. Something like the Passio, of course, will count as a major work, but much of his oeuvre, even relatively minor works, falls into what I generally class as “church music,” which seems to offer the impetus for some of the most profound and moving musical statements ever made, no matter the time or place. (Think Bach’s magnificent Mass in B-minor, or Benjamin Britten’s chilling War Requiem, or Berlioz’ towering Requiem.) This collection gives us a range of the composer’s music spanning the years from 1989 to 2007. (And keep in mind that Pärt tends to go back and revisit earlier works, so that a piece such as Mein Weg, included in this collection, may be dated 1989, 1999, or 2000 — or all three.)

In Principio — “In the beginning. . . .” Pärt took as his text for this piece the beginning of the Gospel of St. John, relating not only the beginning of life, but also the coming of the Light, and of the forerunner, known as John the Baptist, sent to witness the Light. The second movement, on John the Baptist, builds its power not from intensity but from momentum — the intensity is left to the next movement, “Erat lux vera,” the appearance of the Christ, which is amazingly powerful in spite of its relatively low-key writing. While I can’t call this the most compelling piece by Pärt I’ve ever heard — some of the devices he uses seem to be nothing more than that — it does have a certain gravity.

The title La Sindone refers to the Shroud of Turin, the Santa Sindone described in the Gospel of St. Mark. Leopold Brauneiss wrote, when the work premiered, that the second section “spreads out a musical piece of cloth that transmutes the Shroud of Turin into a musical entity.” There is, indeed, a sense of something being revealed in that section, slowly, almost surreptitiously at first, but building to a clear musical structure, bracketed by the opening and closing sections, which are more overtly stated. That middle section turns La Sindone into a quietly but deeply reverent piece of music.

Cecilia, vergine Romana celebrates the life of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, a Roman noblewoman who as a child dedicated her virginity to God and was eventually martyred. The work is cast as a musical drama or oratorio on the framework of a “via dolorosa” using events from the saint’s life as the stations on the way. Pärt has managed to build a good amount of dramatic intensity into what starts off with a very quiet, almost hushed beginning. Wolfgang Sandner, in his notes on the works, points out the structural use of the pauses between sections, and they do indeed have a strong impact, creating a sense of anticipation heightened by the fact that the piece ends with another pause.

Pärt began Da Pacem Domine two days after the terrorist bombings in Madrid in 2004. It has been played yearly in Spain since then as a tribute to the victims of that attack. The version here is for voices, although the composer made allowance for different treatments. It is, quite simply put, Arvo Pärt at his best: spare but richly textured, quiet, reverent, calling up a sense of peace that belies the circumstances of its creation, and in my opinion the most spiritual work in this collection. And it’s also very beautiful.

Mein Weg is another side of the composer. First written as a piece for organ in 1989, and recreated for strings and percussion in 1994, it derives its inspiration from a poem by Edmond Jabés: “My path has peaks and sea-troughs,/sand and sky.” There is a sort of sea-like feeling to the music, with a driving rhythm that gradually asserts itself over seemingly random bursts from the violins, a strong sense of up-and-downness to the whole thing. And then it doesn’t end so much as it just stops, leaving resolution up to us.

Shortly before his death in 2002, Lennart Meri, Estonia’s second elected president after the collapse of the Soviet Union, commissioned Für Lennart in memoriam to be performed at his funeral. Composed on a text in Church Slavonic, it points up again the importance of language in Pärt’s music: the musical phrasing depends greatly on the stresses and natural pauses in the language of the text. There’s an element of lyricism in this piece that, while not frequent, does appear with some degree of regularity in Pärt’s works. And it’s is somehow undeniably funeral music without being morbid — sober, rather than somber.

This is another collection of Pärt’s shorter works under the direction of Tõnu Kaljuste. As is so often the case with contemporary music, this is the recording because it is, for many of these works, the only recording. Happily, Kaljuste has great sympathy for the music of his countryman, and the forces arrayed in support are fully up to the task.

(ECM Records, 2009) Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Tõnu Kaljuste, cond.

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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