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Choral Works

Born in Paide in 1935,Arvo Pärt has become the first Estonian composer to achieve widespread international recognition,his present reputation being derived almost entirely from the music he has composed since the late 1970''s.

Following eight centuries of occupation Estonia finally gained independence after the First World War,and it was only in the 1920's that the first composers of any stasture began to emerge.One of these,Heino Eller (1887-1970),whose composition class was to become of vital importance to successive Estonian composers,proved to be a fortune influence on pärt's development.As pärt recalls:'He gave me a path,but this path was very broad.He didn't push in any direction,he supported you even if what you wrote wasn't exactly like his own credo.He was very human,and it was a vivid apprenticeship.'

Although at the time of Pärt's birth his country enjoyed the status of an independent republic,the 1945 Potsdam Conference brought over four and a half decades of subjection to Soviet rule.pärt thereforegrew up in an environment of repression and artistic censorship.Before his full-time studies with Eller began at Tallinn Conservatory in 1958 he had fulfilled his military service as a snare drummer in an army band,and he also worked as a recording engineer at the Estonian broadcasting station from 1957 to1967

Altough pärt's earliest compositions were tonal,by1960 he was using serial technique.Within a few years of composing his prize-winning cantata,Our garden (1959),for children's choir and orchestra-a work which established his reputation in the USSR-his offical position had shifted to one of notoriety,serialism being regarded as a symbol of Western decadence.Equally unacceptable to the Soviet authorities were his works based on religious texts-Credo(1968) in pärticular caused a scandal-and performances of his music were forbidden. pärt's Second Symphony (1966),with its anarchic,extra-musical elements and use of collage tecnique,is equally typical of this period of his career. For those listeners who have come to know and admire pärt through his more recent music,it can be hard to accept that these largely experimental works were composed by the same man

In the late 1960's,after abandoning serialism,pärt suffered a severe creative crisis,as the stylistic problems which he had been experiencing came to a head.Forced into a drastic re-examination of his work,he almost completely withdrew from composition for several years.During this time he studied Gregorian chant and the music of medieval composers including Josquin,Machaut and Ockeghem.His Third Symphony (1971),a transitional work of considerable power,belongs to this otherwise unproductive period.When he finally began to compose fluently once again (the first piece being Für Alina for piano ,written in1976)it was as though he had been purged ,or had cast off an old skin.His new style marked not only a radical change from his previous work but also one of the most extraordinary creative rebirths in musical history.pärt called his new style 'tintinnabuli',and has described its origins thus:'Für Alina was the first piece to be written on the new bases.It was here that Idiscovered the triad series,which Imade my simple guiding rule.'Though he is very reluctant to talk at length about his compositions,he has commented on the essentials of his tintinnabuli style:'Iwork with very few elements-just one or two voices.Ibuilt with primitive materials-with the triad,with one specific tonality.The three notes of a triad are like belts.And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.'This account leaves a great deal to one's imagination,however,and gives no indigation of the clearly defined and highly organised system which pärt has developed from the basic idea. The triad does indeed from the starting point of each work, and its pervasive presence yields a distinctive mixture of overtones and undertones which is highly suggestive of the sound of bells. Although a single tonal centre is often adhered to through-out a work,this relatively undramatic,essentially contemplative music is nevertheless constantly changing.Its compelling and hypnotic effect is achieved not through monotonous repetition but by continual renewal,with subtl variations in texture,chord-spacing or phrase-length.In spite of its apparent simplicity this tintinnabuli technique has proved to be a remarkably fertile source,from which pärt has created numerous works of purity,clarity,precision and immediacy,each composition having its own quite distinctive character.Clearly,in developing the tintinnabuli style Parrt has also discovered his most personal and eloquent form of expression Early in1980,having decided to emigrate,pärt arrived in the West with his familly.Reflecting on this upheaval,he has said:'I am only a composer.how my music sounds depends on orchestras,soloists,conductors. Overnight,Ilost all of my Eastern interpreters.'Newerthless,his music has attracted a remarkable following in the West,to thr nextent thet he is regarded-much to his own discomfort-as a cult figure,pärticularly in America.Unfortunately this popularity has also meant that he is often bracketed with composers with whom he has little in common,in the fashionable pigeonhole of 'minimalism'-or even 'holy minimalism'.Such superficial assessments contribute so little to a proper appreciation of pärt's music that they are virtually worthless

The vast majority of pärt's tintinnabuli works are choral settings of religious texts,from small-scale pieces such as Summa and his settings of the Magnificat and the Beatitudes to the much more extended Passio or St John Passion.(This concentration on voices seems highly appropriate considering the tremendous importance of song festivals in Estonian culture.)Solfeggio (1964)is the only work on this recording which predates pärt's tintinnabuli period,altough the simplicity of its conception-the notes of the C major scale in overlapping sequence and with frequent octave displacement-is entirely characteristic.

Cantate Domino (a radiant setting of Psalm 95)and Missa syllabica both date from 1977 (revised 1991 and 1996 respectively),the same year as Tabula rasa-one of pärt's most important instrumental works.Missa syllabica is an excellent demonstration of the effectiveness and adaptability of the tintinnabuli system.Its name is simply derived from the relationship between the number of syllables in the words Kyrie,Christus,etc.and the degrees of the scale.Again,however,this is merely a starting point,as numerous variations spring from this basic idea.

In De profundis (1980),a setting of Psalm130 for male voices and organ,with bass drum,gong and bell,the economical but evocative use of the percussion instruments epitomises pärt's musical language in general.The work is dedicated to the composer Gottfried von Einem.

The Seven Magnificat Antiphous date from 1988 (rev.1991).Composed for the RIAS Berlin Chamber Choir,these settings of the Antiphons which are sung on the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve are among the most piercingly beautiful of pärt's recent works.They also show that simplicity of language in no way precludes a wide expressive range.

Of the most recent compositions on this recording,both Beatus Petronius and Statuit ei Dominus are scored for two choirs and two organs,and were commissioned in 1990 for the 600th anniversary of the Basilica San Petronio in Bologna.Memento (originally entitled Memento mori) for a cappella choir dates from 1994 and was commissioned by the Göteborg Music Festival and the International Forum of New Choral Music,Rotenburg.All these compositions are typical in that they appear disarmingly simple on paper,while in performance they reveal a genuine and dignified spiritual depth.

Philip Borg-Wheeler 1997
Virgin Records
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