Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in me, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me,
Christ with me.
Nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine secundum verbum tuum in pace
quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum
lumen ad revelationem gentium et gloriam plebis tuae Israhel
De profundis clamavi ad te Domine: Domine exaudi vocem meam. Fiant aures tuae intendentes in vocem deprecationis meae. Si iniquitates observaveris Domine: Domine quis sustinebit. Quia apud te propitiatio est: et propter legem tuam sustinui te Domine. Sustinuit anima mea in verbo ejus: speravit anima mea in Domino. A custodia matutina usque ad noctem, speret Israel in Domino. Quia apud Dominum misericordia: et copiosa apud eum redemptio. Et Ipse redimet Israel ex omnibus iniquitatibus ejus.
Out of the depths I have cried to thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice. Let thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication. If thou, O Lord, wilt mark iniquities: Lord, who shall stand it. For with thee there is merciful forgiveness: and by reason of thy law, I have waited for thee, O Lord. My soul hath relied on his word.
My first encounter with Arvo Pärt’s music is indelibly etched on my consciousness. My piano teacher – the late Susan Bradshaw – placed a piece in front of me which, from a visual point of view alone, was immediately intriguing. Consisting of just two pages, what was most striking about the music was its utter simplicity: there was no time signature; no changes of tempo, key or dynamics; no textural variation. Playing through this quiet piano miniature I was dumbstruck by its crystalline beauty. The piece was Pärt’s Für Alina. I was hooked.
This was 25 years ago when I was an undergraduate at Goldsmiths, University of London. Pärt at that time was virtually unknown in the West. Since then, he has become one of the most widely performed, recorded and fêted contemporary composers, one of a select few who make their living solely through composition.
The difficulty that Simon Broughton faced when trying to get Pärt to talk about his music on camera chimes entirely with my own experience when I came to write my PhD on the composer. I had the good fortune of meeting Pärt several times during my research, including the slightly terrifying experience of giving a paper on his Credo in the composer’s presence at the Royal Academy of Music. One particularly memorable afternoon was spent with Arvo and his wife, Nora, at the Orthodox Monastery of St John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (the Pärts owned a property a short drive away). While Pärt was perfectly happy to answer my questions about his work list, which pieces had been withdrawn for revision, and so on, he responded to questions about his music by giving me Archimandrite Sophrony’s weighty hardback tome, Saint Silouan the Athonite. “If you want to understand my music,” he told me, “read this.” The music, you inferred, must speak for itself.
Born on 11 September 1935 in Paide, Estonia, Pärt studied composition at the Tallinn Conservatory under the influential teacher Heino Eller. Although best known for the works he has composed since the unveiling of the “tintinnabuli” style, announced in 1976 by Für Alina, Pärt had already become something of an enfant terrible in Soviet musical circles during the 1960s. The darkly expressive orchestral piece Nekrolog (1960), Pärt’s first mature work, caused a scandal by being the first Estonian work to employ serialism, incurring the wrath of no less a person than the all-powerful head of the Soviet Composers’ Union, Tikhon Khrennikov. Not a man to be trifled with.
Using other avant-garde techniques such as pointillism and aleatoricism, Pärt wrote further experimental works including Perpetuum Mobile (1963), Symphony No 1 (1964), Diagrams (1964) and Musica Sillabica (1964) in which extremes of dynamics and texture at times reach cumulative points of such intensity that the music seems to be on the verge of complete collapse.
Becoming dissatisfied with serial technique, Pärt searched for another means of furthering his musical development, resulting in his use of “borrowed” tonal gestures and the adoption of baroque and classical forms, such as the comic finality of the musical catch phrase which brings Quintettino (1964) to an ambivalent conclusion; the grotesque distortion of Bach’s Sarabande from English Suite No 6 in the central movement of Collage on B-A-C-H (1964); and the ironic cadenza and grandiloquent tonal conclusion of the cello concerto Pro et Contra (1966).
The remarkable Credo (1968), which represented both the culmination of his early style and the first work in which he set a religious text, is a pivotal work in Pärt’s output. Scored for piano, chorus and orchestra, the two outer sections are based on a pristine C major tonality – specifically the C major Prelude from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier – while the central triptych journeys into chaos and a wild, improvised climax. An exhilarating cri de coeur of a piece, the composer’s musical affirmation of faith (“Credo in Jesum Christum”) ensured that the work was banned in the Soviet Union following its first performance.
Following Credo, Pärt reached a creative impasse and underwent a dramatic reorientation of style. The impulse for this change was twofold, springing on the one hand from an inner musical necessity brought about by his encounter with plainchant and other early music, and on the other by his gradual religious awakening (originally Lutheran, Pärt converted to the Russian Orthodox Church). Rather than appropriate the stylistic conventions of past composers, his compositional concerns now became directed towards a very specific goal: the setting of religious texts. It was no longer enough to simply import tonality by wearing a Bachian stylistic mask as he had done in Credo.
The surprising richness of the work’s closingGratiarum Actio is one of the most transcendent passages of 20th-century sacred music
While the techniques and processes of early music have proved to be a continuing source of fascination and inspiration for many contemporary composers – Louis Andriessen, Peter Maxwell Davies and Steve Reich all readily spring to mind – no other composer has made such a profound study of this music, and with such fruitful results, as Pärt. Aside from the importance of specific models from early music, Pärt’s in-depth exploration compelled him to rebuild his musical language from scratch. Anything that had no properly audible, as opposed to merely textural, purpose no longer had a place in his work.
Tabula Rasa. Cartoon portrait by Heinz Valg (1978)
To uncover what he considered to be the startling power of unadorned melody, Pärt wrote reams of technical exercises using just a single line of music. Apart from its innate inner strength, what impressed the composer most about plainchant was its cohesiveness, its clarity and its flexibility. From working with just a single line of music, Pärt then began to investigate the potential of using two voices, before intuitively discovering the simple two-part unit that was to become the basis of the tintinnabuli style: a generally step-wise melodic line accompanied by a triadic or “tintinnabuli” harmony (tintinnabulum literally means “small bell”). Subtly varied from work to work – the composer determining the rules of the game for each piece – the tintinnabuli style has proved extremely flexible.
An outpouring of works followed in 1977 – something of anannus mirabilis for Pärt – including three of the most enduring works of the new style: the seemingly endless melodic descents of Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten; the punctilious melodic elaborations of the double violin concertoTabula Rasa; and the startling gesturelessness of Fratres.
The most perfect realisation of the tintinnabuli style came with the St John Passion (1977-82). Wishing to act merely as a vessel for the music, Pärt decided from the very beginning that the Passion text would yield the entire substance of the work. Setting the text syllabically throughout, every single phrase structure, note value and caesura between phrases is governed entirely by the punctuation of the text. The result is a work of profound restraint, at once both detached and deeply affecting. The surprising richness of the work’s closing Gratiarum Actio – a final offering of praise and thanks which is heard in its entirety in the forthcoming episode ofSacred Music – is one of the most transcendent passages of 20th-century sacred music.
From the troubled angst of Credo to the celestial atemporality of the St John Passion, Pärt’s has been one of contemporary music’s most fascinating journeys
Pärt has remarked that it is the nature of the language being set that predetermines to a remarkable degree the specific character of each vocal piece. From working predominantly with Latin texts, his many commissions have seen him setting Italian in Dopo la vittoria (1996), Spanish in the psalm setting Como cierva sedienta (1998), and numerous settings in English. The latter include the stylised invocations and responses of Litany (1994), a return to St John’s Gospel for I Am the True Vine (1996), and The Deer’s Cry (2007), a setting in English of St Patrick’s Breastplate (“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me…”). Of especial significance is Pärt’s setting of Church Slavonic, a language used exclusively in ecclesiastical texts, in the imposing Kanon Pokajanen (1997). As evidenced by the extract of the piece heard in Sacred Music, its sound-world appears to place it within the illustrious tradition of Russian Orthodox Church music. What all of these works vividly illustrate is the way in which the tintinnabuli style can absorb new textural and harmonic approaches.
From the troubled angst of Credo to the celestial atemporality of the St John Passion, Pärt’s has been one of contemporary music’s most fascinating journeys.
Three essential recordings
Pärt’s music has been incredibly well served on disc, notably by ECM New Series, to the extent that his ever-increasing discography has become difficult to keep up with. The following three recordings, however, are essential.
Tabula Rasa (ECM New Series)
Three purely instrumental classics of the tintinnabuli style: Fratres, Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten and Tabula Rasa. Find on Amazon
Passio (ECM New Series)
Pärt’s austere masterpiece, conducted by one of his foremost interpreters, Paul Hillier. Find on Amazon
Kanon Pokajanen (ECM New Series)
A stunning performance of the Canon of Repentance by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Find on Amazon
Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North
This Country your Valour, this Country is yours
Farewell to the mountains high cover’d with snow;
Farewell to the straths and green valleys below;
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer –
A-chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.
Farewell to the Forrests and wild-hanging woods;
Farwell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer
Chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.