Spirit Songs: The Sublime Music of Arvo Pärt

“I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played, this one note or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.” – Avro Pärt

BBC Soul Music Series 12: Exploring the impact that Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s piece for piano and violin Spiegel im Spiegel has had on people’s lives.

‘Soulful music’ is a phrase that’s often bandied around casually nowadays, but the music of Estonian composer Avro Pärt (born 1935) truly deserves this epithet. Music connoisseurs across the world soundly agree. For the eighth year in a row, Pärt (pronounced as “Pieart”) has been given the title of the “world’s most performed living composer” by the classical music event database, Bachtrack.

Naturally, we ask: what is it about Pärt’s music that garner such acclaim and draw so many listeners to it. One thing is certain – it isn’t virtuosity. In fact, his pieces are slow, serene and silent. It is also completely tonal, drawing elements of early church music like plainsong to give the silence between notes equal value to the notes themselves.

A man of deep Christian faith, Pärt’s music is informed by his faith, which helps distinguish his compositions from those of other modern composers who also create music that make use of silence. Overlaying the quietness of many of his pieces are the gentle sounds of bells, a technique Pärt invented in 1976 and he calls Tintinnabuli (Latin for ‘little bells’). Tintinnabuli does not strife for a progressive increase in harmonic complexity but rather towards the paring of sounds to the essential, with the bell tinkles serving as a kind of spiritual guide to the music’s rhythm. The result is music that is simple, yet profoundly moving in a way more complex compositions seldom are. When I listen to a Pärt, I sink into nothing as if I’ve momentarily left this crazy world for a better place.

Listen: Avro Pärt, Spiegel im Spiegel (‘Mirror in the Mirror’)

Brief: Pärt wrote this composition in 1978, two years before he and his family left Estonia for Berlin. The piece is in the Tintinnabular style and is about ten minutes long. For the a sublime listening experience, immerse into it with a headphone with your eyes shut.

An Avro Pärt’s Story (from the New York Times)

Emigrating from the Soviet Union to the west in January 1980 with his wife, Nora, and their two small sons, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt was stopped by border police at the Brest railroad station for a luggage search. “We had only seven suitcases, full of my scores, records and tapes,” he recalled recently. “They said, ‘Let’s listen.’

It was a big station. No one else was there. We took my record player and played ‘Cantus.’ It was like liturgy. Then they played another record, ‘Missa Syllabica.’ They were so friendly to us. I think it is the first time in the history of the Soviet Union that the police are friendly.” He was joking, but not entirely. Later, when I asked Nora about that strange scene at the border, she said, “I saw the power of music to transform people.”

Also, do check this out: Acton Institute – Arvo Pärt and the universal soul of music. https://www.arvopart.ee/en/arvo-part/

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