Born in 1935, Arvo Pärt comes from Estonia, a remote country with cultural traditions rooted in an ancestrally religious past, while being part of an aggressively secular state, the Soviet Union. It is hardly suprising that Pärt was divided and distracted, uncertain of identity or direction. He began by composing symphonic music roughly in Western tradition, with some kinship with Shostakovich and the solitudinous inner drama of Sibelius. We don't know much about this music since the composer disowned it; but we can understand why the Beethovenian task of wilfully imposing order on chaos proved, for Pärt, formidable. Desperately, he sought other ways out, briefly flirting with then fashionable serialism and with aleatoric techniques: both of which proved to be for him, technical alternatives to orthodox Western traditions, rather than imaginative and moral solutions of a creative impasse.
The earliest work on this recording, the Second Symphony of 1966, belongs to this experimental phase. It is scored for a large conventional orchestra unconventionally treated. The first movement opens with the strings in aleatoric jittering,
like forest murmurs, or the humming of a factory, or both. Cries on solo wind instruments, beginning with very long notes, are mutated into syncopated barks and grunts; there's distant parallel with the non-human non-ostinato-notes that emerge, usually on wind, from a continuum of strings in works by Sibelius like the Fourth Symphony and Tapiola. Pärt's textures are more ferocious, though not more alarming, than Sibelius's in that dissonant note-clusters take the place of grammatically construable chords. The sequence of gibberings,
howlings, and barkings recurs cumulatively, but the movement does have a beginning, middle, and end in that in the coda the motives grow more coherent, to cease on an immense triad of D minor-major, with added seventh. The second, scherzoid movement is, however, violently disruptive, mostly in chittering aleatorics through which reverberate grumblingly low or searingly high sustained notes. Metrical dislocations, suggested by the medieval device of hocketing, are even more exacerbated than in the first movement, and this second movement does not end, but merely stops. By the third and last movement it's apparent that, if a Beethoven symphony is a wresting of order from chaos,
Pärt's Second is an anti-symphony. A vast spread chord on divided strings is assailed by pounding E flats on timpani, and is linearly splintered by sextuplets, quintuplets, and triplets which clash in increasing tumult against the percussion until they blow up in a lunatic, in part improvised, cadenza. Yet the end of Pärt's symphony remains ambivalent, for after further eruptions of the quintuplets and the gibbering a fragment from Tchaikovsky's Album For Children has the last word, with quiet, sonorously spaced tonic triads. This may be ironic or may be a dream that is trur
than truth. The question remains open.
Pärt composed a third, more positive, symphony before deciding that the sonata principle was extraneous to his purposes. During the middle sixties he paused, hesitated; and found a raft to cling to in the music of J.S.Bach, who owes his crucial position in European history to his being a halfway house, looking back to the Middle Ages and to Renaissance contrapuntists, while relishing the procedures of the contemporary High Baroque, and acting as harbinger of unsuspected futures. This disc includes three collage-pieces based in a general sense on Bach's idiom, with some reference to specific works by him. The earliest and longest is the Credo of 1968, which sets two fragments of holy writ for mixed chorus, piano solo, and orchestra. The opening words,
"Credo in Jesum Christum," are startlingly juxtaposed with the admonition about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, provoking a structure based on contradiction. The introduction, in C major, is grandly Bachian in style: from which the solo piano takes over, initially playing genuine Bach in the form of the first (C Major) Prelude from the Forty-Eight. Getting faster, the music grows increasingly fragmented and distorted,
both in the orchestra's chorale-like interjections and in the pianist's permutations of the C major Prelude. The piece's primitive, quasi-allegorical structure is an ever more surrealistic interweaving of the non-developing orchestral and pianistic motives, until the chorus declaim, and ultimately shouts, the "oculo pro dente" phrase. This releases hellish chaos, as all the forces explode in frenzy, eventually unnotated, counteracted only by cavernous pedal notes on C.
Even so, the end is affirmative. The piano purrs again in Bach's original version of his Prelude, perhaps sounding a shade illusory, in the higher octave; and the chorus, returning to the original massive Bachian homophony, chants the words ""on esse resistendum injuriae"" The resolutory function of the solo piano may suggest that personal salvation is all that matters, or is now feasible. In this case Bach is surrogate for us: as he is too in Wenn Bach Bienen gezüchtet hätte, written in 1976 for piano, string orchestra and wind quintet. This opens like a minimalist piece, with repeated notes in increasingly complex polymetres. The buzzing would seem to emulate the bees Bach is proleptically seen as keeper of, bees being a creaturely community said to work in togetherness,
as humans often don't. But the point of the piece is the slow metamorphosis of the humming (originally centred on B flat) into a luminous coda in B minor. Bach's key of suffering and transcendence. Pärtian polyphony becomes singing lines creating painful harmonies in a regular crotchet pulse over a "walking" bass, and ends with a protracted Bachian cadence. The final "tierce de Picardie" heals us, as well as Pärt and Bach.
The work specifically called Collage sur B.A.C.H. is scored for strings, oboe, harpsichord, and piano; and its first movement is again a minimalist "moto perpetuo", gradually shifting from B flat to B minor. The slow movement transcribes a noble Bach sarabande for oboe and harpsichord; then transfers it to strings and attempts to demolish it with the noise, rather than music, of note-clusters on a modern piano, embracing all the chromatic semitones within the octave. In a modified da capo of the D minor sarabande, hints of the B.A.C.H. motif creep into the texture, to become the theme of the third movement, appropriately called Ricercar. Contrapuntal oneness is traditionally affirmative, despite the spikey texture, and the final eight-part D major triad proves more potent than the note-clusters that, reminding us of past perils and perturbations, invade the coda.
Pärt's Bach-collages, though fascinating and often startling, represent a transitional phase, linking his eclectic start to his discovery of identity in his works of the 80s and 90s. For after a self-imposed silence, Pärt was Born Again - not in the crude evangelical sense, but in that all his music was now concerned with the numinous. Henceforth, his music betrays a dept to monodic religious cantillation, especially that of the Orthodox Russian Church; to medieval organum and heterophony; and to the austerely mathematical polyphony of Renaissance composers like Machaut and Ockeghem, whose work Pärt studied during his "silent" period. If one wants points of reference to define the nature of Pärt's music beyond these traditional sources, one might mention the liturgical music of Stravinsky, the ceremonial music of Janacek, the children's music of Orff, and Satie's Socrate.
This does not mean that Pärt was "influenced" by these composers, only that he shares with them a consanguinity of mind, creating, from the rudiments of mode and triad, a music that is extraordinarily simple, and simply extraordinary. Three examples of this phase of Pärt's creation complete this recording.
Summa was originally a setting for four voices of the Latin version of the Christian creed. The music does not attempt to illustrate or express the words: in this respect it resembles medieval music and is distinct from a Renaissance polyphonist such as Byrd, even when writing liturgically. Pärt's music is consistenly in the Aeolian mode on E, with no modulation. The magic lies in the haunting memorability of the melody, undulating between stepwise movement and "wide-eyed" arpeggiated figures, and in its hypnotic rhythm, bearing us on its gentle current, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. After such vulnerable wonderment the final empty fifth does indeed sound like the eternity of God.
Festina lente, written in 1988 for string orchestra and harp, is out of this world in a rather different sense. The write-note texture, without a single accidental, induces calm of mind, all passion spent: an effect compounded by the ambiguity of the modality, which is Lydian, Aeolian, or Dorian, neutrally in limbo. The title, Festina lente, bears on both the piece's technique and its meaning, for it is built on mensuration canons that "hurry slowly" in that the theme is chanted by the violas at basic speed, and is canonically imitated by first and second violins at double speed, and by cellos and basses at half speed. All the canons start together but, given their different tempi, end disparately. The melody is played, in its (magical) three distinct tempi, a total of seven (magical) times, fading to an ultimate silence.
Pärt refers to the Emperor Augustus's aphorism: "For keeping your mouth shut there will be a reward";
for Pärt, as for John Cage, silence is golden.
Fratres dates from 1977, but was revised in 1983. This later version is for string orchestra, with claves and bass drum. Throughout, cellos and basses sustain a drone on the open fifth, A to E: a device common in medieval organum and sundry oriental musics.
Through this eternity symbol, the drum and claves reiterate a two-bar pattern in 6/4 time. Between each reiteration, violins in three widely spaced parts sway in triadic false relations, floating in additive rhythms of 7+9+11/4. There is no development except in so far as the percussion pattern increases in dynamics each time it recurs, thereby encouraging violas and cellos to reinforce the violins. The enhanced weight makes the strings" false relations sound more passionate. This increase in dynamics, and in the tension implicit in the false relations, creates a kind of climax, though the thematic substance changes only slowly and slightly.
Moreover, the dynamics are reversed at the central point, eventually fading to leave only the distant drum and endless drone.
These three late works are brief in temporal duration but eternal in a temporal effect. Similar principles inform the major liturgical works of Pärt's maturity, culminating in the St john Passion of 1982. At the end of this work Pärt, far from relapsing into the "paradise of archetypes and repetition "beloved of children, savages, and minimalists, is poised on the verge between Becoming and Being, creating what is surely one of the sublime moments in 20th century music. He has indeed been a miraculous pilgrimage.
1993 Wilfrid Mellers