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Arvo Pärt, born in Paide, Estonia, on September 11, 1935, graduated from the Tallinn Conservatory in 1963 while working as a recording director in the music division of the Estonian Radio. A year before leaving the Conservatory, he won the first prize in the All-Union Young Composers' Competition for a children's cantata and an oratorio. In 1980 he emigrated Vienna, where he took Austrian citizenship; since 1982 he has made his home in West Berlin.

Pärt's earliest works show the influence of the Soviet music of Prokofiev and Shostakovisc, but beginning in 1960 with Necrology for orchestra he adopted the serial principles of Schoenberg. This procedure quickly exhausted its interest for him, however, and for a fruitful period in the mid-1960s during which he produced a cello concerto, the Second Symphony, and the Collage on Bach for orchestra he explored the techniques of collage and quotation. Pärt was still dissatisfied, however, and he abandoned creative work for several years, during which time he devoted himself to the study of the music of such medieval and Renaissance composers as Machaut, Ockeghem, Obrecht, and Josquin. Guided by the spirit and method of those ancient masters, Pärt broke his compositional silence in 1976 with the small piano piece Für Alina, which utilizes quiet dynamics, rhythmic stasis, and open-interval and triadic harmonies to create a thoughtful mood of mystical introspection reflecting the composer's personel piety. His subsequent works, all of which eschew electronic tone production in favor of traditional instruments and voices, have been written in this pristine, otherworldly style inspired by Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, and seek to unite ancient and modern ages in music that seems part out of time.

Pärt calls his manner of composition " tintinnabulation," from the Latin word for bells. " Tintinnabulation," the composer explains, "is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers - in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises - and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. Here, I'm alone with silence. 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. I work with very few elements - with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials - with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation."

Fratres was composed in 1977 for string quintet and wind quintet, and first performed by the Estonian early music ensemble "Hortus musicus." Pärt has subsequently adapted he work for many other solo and ensemble combinations of strings, winds, and percussion. Frates is based on the repetitions of an austere, hymn-like theme played above a continuous drone on the interval of an open fifth. The repetitions (eight in the original version), separated by notes played as or simulating drum taps, are transposed downward a minor or major third on each appearance, so that the sonority grows lower and richer as Fratres unfolds. The dynamic peak is reached in the middle of the work, after which the music is gradually overtaken by silence to end in a state of hushed spirituality. The versions of Fratres that include solo instruments retain the work's formal and harmonic framework, but allow the violin and cello to soar around it and comment upon it in a sort of musical exegesis that reflects new light upon these somber strains. The work's title - "Brothers" - seems to indicate that this music was inspired by the vision of a solemn procession of medieval monks wending their way by flickering candlelight along the ambulatory to the abbey's chapels, for another of the endless succession of services that regulated their monastic lives.

Pärt composed the Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten in 1977 in tribute to the renowned English composer, who died on December 4, 1976, in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. This brief but deeply moving threnody, begun by the solitary pealing bell, is based on a single thematic idea, a falling, step-wise motive that slowly cascades from the high violins to the deep basses above a mournful sustained harmony. The music's grief grows more intense as it descends into the string choir' lower reaches, but its somber rhythmic motion becomes slower, as though the funeral cortege were increasingly reluctant to reach the final resting place. Its stark simplicity of concept and singularity of emotion give this musical obsequy and expressive significance that, like the man it honors, transcends the too-short time that it dwells among us.

Pärt's Summa - a synthesis, a summary of life's experiences - was originally created in 1978 as a setting for four solo voices of the Church's most cogent declaration of its faith, as expressed in the Latin words of the Mass: Credo in unum Deum ("We believe in one God"). The work winds its gently flowing lines around the ancient text, sometimes placing pairs of voices against each other (a technique greatly favored in Renaissance sacred music), sometimes creating haunting modal harmonies from the weaving together of all the voices. The transporting of Summa into the realm of the pure, wordless music of the string ensemble only heightens its aura of wonder, mystery, and timelessness.

The apparently enigmatic title of the 1988 Festina Lente - "Fast Slow" - is explained by the music's structure, in which a long, winding melody is simultaneously sounded in three different tempos - at speed in the violas, twice as fast in the violins, and twice as slow in the basses. The involved technique, intended to provide a subtle underlying unity without calling undue attention to its own highly intellectualized structural function, is known as a "mensuration canon" ("mensuration" is the Renaissance equivalent of the modern time signature;"canon" is the derivation of a polyphonic piece from a single melodic line), and was borrowed by Pärt from Ockegham and others of the most learned fifteenth-century masters. The piece ends with four measures of complete silence.

Richard E. Rodda
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