The Lenten Time Of Music


Since the breakthough to poetic musical expression which Arvo pärt calls tintinnabuli-style', his scores have been pervaded by bell-like sounds. The three notes of the triad ringing out above the root can sometimes be heard throughout an entire work. Occasionally a singing vpice will explore its range and tone colour, or a chosen instrument will allow itself an exploration of the colour potential in the effects of double octaves. But afterwards, like disciples following the master, there is always a return to the subtle reserve of three bell-tones, which in sequence and rhythm are completely indepentent of the paradigmatic melody they accompany. Courage rings forth from this -play of the bells-; it is the courage of humility. Moreover, both grace and sadness are expressed in an austerity which limits itself to so few notes.

pärt's music issues from the spirit of Lent. It comes to us unaffected by the plethora of styles, techniques and values offered us in luxurious array by the music industry. Compared with the expanding possibilities open to musical production today, such as the electronic studio and computer visualization, his work remains pure and unpretentious. The rejection of technology by pärt is not to be accounted for in terms of an essential, naïve innocence. It is rather that status symbols are either ignored or are simply regarded as out of date. His compositions relate to a time before individuals were proclaimed for their work and a certain anonymity was observed.

pärt's Passion music not only re-enacts biblical events sacred to both Jews and Chiristians (as is evident from the titles and texts of his scores). It also enfolds the manifest suffering of mankind in the declining years of this century which through great upheavals has been reduced to an inhuman common denominator, that of the Century of the Refugee. In this, artists like Arvo pärt have been able to report from their own experience. This is related to the three-fold tragedy, flight, exile and inner emigration.

Miserere (1989) the most recent in the series of liturgical works devoted to the Passion (The Passion of St. John, 1982, Stabat Mater, 1985) begins on the stark note of human existence. A lonevoice begins to sing. In regular, alternating, long and short syllables, the voice intones the opening verses of Psalm 51, the fourth psalm of repentance (Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness…). To give weight to what is said, a pause follows each word, appropriate to the sound and sense of the utterance. Into this reverent stillness, the clarinet gently intrudes with tones from the same chord. The clarinet can accommodate itself to spanning large intervals, thus enabling it to sustain a two-beat against the three-beat rhythm of the singing voice. Each of its arpeggios is followed by a pause before the voice takes up the next word, making sophisticated use of the Hocket technique employed by medieval masters to separate the instrumental from the vocal lines. Later, the warm, deep tones of the bass clarinet begin to provide the first connecting links of sound.

Indeed, what is happening here, using the simplest means and a minimum of musical elaboration, is no less than an ushering in of sound anticipating the final drama. That drama comes at the end of the world when the divine, assuming the musical form of the requiem's Dies Irae, breaks in upon the penitential world of man. Between the fourth and fifth verses of the psalm an implacable drum-roll heralds the coming of the Day of Wrath and its rain of fire. (Here, we can make a comparison to the end of second movement of pärt's Third semphony.) The world of man is represented by singers holding the liber scriptus (the Book of Life), who, totally dependent on God's grace, fall silent after a mighty crescendo, and remain so during the first seven stanzas of the Dies Irae interpolition.

Divine wrath brust in upon the world with great power; the members of a heavenly choir (consisting of angels, the twenty-foyr elders of the Apocalypse, and the four Evvvangelists' symbolic animals accompanied by King David) take turns singing the prophetic text of Thomas de Celano (died 1255) without pause and seemingly senza fine. How else could the day of judgement be represented in the music of man except suddenly and unexpectedly, rendering all conentional methods of creating musical climax powerless?

In his Dies Irae interpolation pärt does not employ the well-known Gregorian melody. Instead, he adopts a strict three-part mensuration canon in which the voices of chorus and instruments descend, step by step, from a great height on the notes of pure A-minor scale, a procedure which is repeated at every verse and stanza. A trombone proclaims the end of the world, its powerful notes resounding to the awesome event, while the sound of the trumpet leaps up from the molten core to shoot and dart above the fiery chaos.

Although the music has great power here, it does not overwhelm the listener. In the silence which follows immediately, as well as in succeeding silences into which the composer and his music retreat, one can reflect upon what is heard, albeit as something past and at a distance. In addition, the silences can serve to assist the afflicted ear by supplying temporary respite (as when, in speaking of the holocaust, there is mention of total saxrifice). part from this, it is probably true that anyone listening to pärt's music emphatically needs the pauses. As the poet of the 'Middle Ages' ( that is to sat, the period which precedes the third milennium), pärt' pauses are in fact on the one hand, codes which denote human deficiency and on the other, indicators of the beginnings of a completely different kind of music.

Following the silence colored by the sound of the bell and after the seven stanzas of the Dies Irae, a new beginning unfolds. As at the openning of the work, it is once more a single unaccompanied voice that construct the world of Miserere. The former tonic now becomes a leading tone, and the first melismata appear. The music rises from the depths to higherspheres, slowly developing from a paralyzingdespondency though the finer nuances of dance and then to fullness, depth and suprising dramatic power.

The additional eight stanza, Rex tremendae, succeeds in gathering up the enourmous tensions inherent in the Miserere. During this segment, the five vocal soloists haltingly repeat some of the syllables from the text sung by the choir, so that, after the descent expressed in the first seven stanzas of the Dies Irae interpolation, the listener is finally transported upwards.

In his Festina Lente, an adagio for strings with an ad Libitum for harp, pärt recalls the beginning of the Christian era, especially the emperor Augustus is said to have given a year's holiday, at his own expense, to the man who advised him, When thou inclinest to anger, Caesar, spek not nor act until thou hast counted the twenty-four letters of the alphabet , 'Augustus added, "For keeping your mounth shut there will also be a reward."

The sacred numbers three and seven determine the work's structure; it consists of a mensuration canon in which all parts begin simultaneously. The metaphoric title, Festina Lente, is cryptic hint as to the form and meaning of the piece. The lightly veiled principal melody is played by a group of violas at centre stage. The first and second violins play in counterpoint at twice the tempo, while the cellos and double basses play at half their speed. pärt rarely departs from an adherence to strict contrapuntal principles. The few directions he does make for fingering and dynamic gestures are, as it were, written in faint pencil.

The three groups of instruments divided into canon and tintinnabuli voices play the melody seven times at three different tempos. Although the canon begins with all the parts together, it ends atypically in that each voice follows the previous to its own conclusion. After a pause, the melody begins again piu lento. For a few bars the voices are heard in a higher key, then in a lower key, and finally all sound fades away completely in maximum pianissimo. pärt maintains the enigma of the title Festina Lente, and presents us with a work whose enthusiastic theme has been tamed by its structure.

In 1977, when pärt composed Sarah Was Ninety Years Old, a work for three solo voices, organ, and timpani, he was obliged to title it Modus due to the stringent anti-religious codes imposed by the Soviet cultural authorities. It seems as though he must already have been familiar with the opening scene of Andrej Tarkovsky's film The Sacrifice, which was made between 1985 and 1986. In the film, Alexander, an intellectual who is experiencing a crisis, tells his son the following story while planting a withered tree:

"Come her and give me a hand, my boy! Once upon a time, long ago, an old monk lived in an orthodox monastery. His name was Pamve. And once he planted a barren tree on a mountainside just like this. Then he told his young pupil, a monk named Joann Kolov, that he should water the tree each day until it came to life. Put a few stones there, will you? Anyway, early every morning Joann filled a dipper with water and went out. He climbed up the mountains and watered the withered tree and in the evening when darkness had fallen he returned to the monastery. He did this for three years. And one fine day, he climbed up the mountain and saw that the whole tree was covered with blossoms. Say what you will, but a method, a system, has its virtues.
You know, sometimes I say to myself, if every single day, at exactly the same stroke of the clock, one were to perform the same single act, like a ritual, unchanging, systematic, every day at the same time, the world would be changed. Yes, something would change. It would have to!"

To water the tree each day, contrary to all good sense and experience, and thus to do what appears to be necessary without being put off, embodies the meaning of the traditional stories recounted by the Jews awaiting the Messiah. Those stories, taken from the Old Testament, are cyclically re-enacted in the synagogues during holy festivals. Such re-enactments take place in pärt's music. In Sarah Was Ninety Years Old, he relates the story of Sarah, the wife of the "ancient father" Abraham, who laughed at the tidings that she was with child, since at 90, she was long past the age of childbearing. Yet we know from the bible that she bore Abraham a son.

The fewer words one spend on pärt's exercises the greater the effect. This much, however, can be said; Sarah was the point of breakthrough to the considerable number of scores pärt has since written. In fact, it seems to have ended a long phase of artistic infertility. (The work has been slightly revised and the instrumentation has been changed since 1977.) Sarah's late blossoming has also become a component of pärt's work, and whatever one believes, it is true that Sarah's system has indeed something quite wonderful about it.

Dr. Hermann Conen - ECM Records
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