Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Arvo Pärt: A Portrait

by Pedro Blaz Gonzalez

The trajectory of Arvo Pärt’s career as a classical composer is as interesting in its personal as it is in its musical dimensions.

Born on September 11, 1935 in the Estonian town of Paide, Pärt’s musical formation came about under the arbitrary, but rigorously censored strong arm of Soviet artistic control. But this, as far as Pärt’s mature music is concerned, would not be concretely felt until the mid 1960s.

Pärt has come to be known as a composer of religious music. To some critics Pärt is an imitator of Bach. Pärt, however, does not agree with the notion that all musical creativity must strive to be necessarily new or original. Nick Kimberley’s 67-odd page essay, which accompanies this double CD package, is very instructive for followers of Pärt’s music, as well as those just discovering this contemporary master. The author cites some very interesting things that Pärt has to say about his music. As for the often-fanatical need for originality that some critics demand, Pärt has some sharp ideas on aesthetics:

I am not sure there could be progress in art… Everyone understands what progress means in the technique of military warfare. Art presents a more complex situation…many art objects of the past appear to be more contemporary than our present art.

Kimberley’s commentary, too, is insightful:

That is a view which put Pärt at odds with the philosophy, not only of the Communist Party, but also of modernism, which has always lived by the dictum ‘Make it new.’

Ironically Pärt’s ideas on aesthetics are as original as those of any artist of the 20th century, ideas that in due time will eventually prove prophetic, as we continue to empty aesthetics’ coffer with ever more timely “techniques” and theories. Blending his diverse musical influences: medieval and Renaissance, scared, his early flirtation with serialism, his use of bells and choral music, Pärt’s compositions are equally marked by his distinctively individualistic pathos.

Spanning the musical styles for which Pärt has come to be known, this musical amalgam CD set comes about on the occasion of Pärt’s 70th birthday. With thirty-three selections in total, this compilation serves as an excellent sampler of Pärt’s musical creation. The first disc begins with Fur Alina, a short piano piece. This is followed by the second movement of Pärt’s Symphony No.1. Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten is replete with a melodic sentiment that couples harmonious strings with bells, an example of Pärt’s now well known “tintinnabulation,” that, because of its steady tempo, can only be described as a musical meditation. In some respects this piece reminds us of a canon in its mesmerizing fluidity. Also included in the first CD are six choral pieces: Passio (extract) “Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem,” Berliner Messe (Kyrie), Magnificat, Passio (extract) “Unde es tu? Jesus autem responsum non dedit ei,” Berliner Messe (Credo) and Beatitudes.

Of the several variations of Fratres that Pärt has composed, one appears on this disc, Fratres for cello and piano. This work is another example of his truly meditative “silences.” Summa for strings, a baroque-like piece is also included. The last piece that appears on this disc is an organ work: Annum per annum for organ.

The second disc starts with a shorter variation of Fratres titled Fratres for strings and percussion that is followed by Collage über B-A-C-H, which can essentially be described as a baroque duel for strings. The choral pieces included in CD 2 are: Cantate Domino canticum novum (Psalm 95), Triodion and Passio (extract) “Et ex illa hora accepit eam discipulus in sua.’” Pro et Contra for cello and orchestra, a work that is divided into three movements begins with an explosion of sound that quickly settles into the punctured silence rendered by cello and percussion. The second movement is marked by an agitated cello. The third movement is an allegro that is characterized by its ever-ascending tempo.

Pärt’s Symphony No. 3 (Third Movement) is truly tantalizing in its depth and richness, culminating in what can simply be described as beautiful music. This work showcases the composer’s ability to synthesize sounds that speak volumes as they tug at the listener’s emotions. Spiegel im Spiegel is a gentle piece for violin and piano that demonstrates Pärt’s stable technique of playing one note at a time, a tempo that is responsible for creating excruciating anticipation as the work progresses.

Tabula Rasa is perhaps one of Pärt’s most distinguished pieces. This work for strings and piano conveys the impression of movement, of a stream of consciousness that is perhaps best characterized as light. As the violin leads the rest of the strings, the piece becomes engulfed by a full sound that is fractured by a crashing piano that, like a dramatic hammer, seems to be conscious of keeping time. Again, this is Pärt’s ability to incite and engage the emotions.
Experiencing Pärt’s music, we are reminded of the heighten pathos that classical music can evoke. We are also pleasantly uplifted to realize that this compositional transmutation is taking place in the first decade of the 21st century. Admirable in his refusal to settle for popular, new age saccharine drivel or pretentious anti-vital minimalism, Pärt’s musical output, like all great art, is measured in its consistency and ability to fulfill the cultural and spiritual zest of those who seek it. And as for the limits of aesthetics, Pärt seems to challenge “post-modernity” into realizing that the western cultural heritage will always remain after the dust of modish vulgarity has settled.

Pedro Blas Gonzalez is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Barry University in Miami, Florida. Amongst his intellectual pursuits is his interest in the relationship that exists between subjectivity, self-autonomy and philosophy.

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