The 2005 Honorees

By John Rockwell

He has built and sustained a body of work that places him among the most important composers of our time. The hushed, rapt, spiritual voice of his music over the past two decades seems imbued with an extra-musical aura, and few other living composers can boast such loyal performers and recording companies who cater to audiences eagerly held in thrall.

When the Estonian-trained, Berlin-based composer Arvo Pärt came to the world’s attention more than 20 years ago, with works like Fratres, Tabula Rasa, and the St. John Passion, he was neatly pigeonholed. Critics love pigeonholes; they make things easier. So Pärt was a “mystical minimalist,” along with Sofia Gubaidulina, Giya Kancheli, Andrezj Panufnik, Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, and, later, John Taverner.

But, for a variety of reasons, Pärt has separated himself from this mostly Eastern
European pack, at least for now. Kancheli and Panufnik are rarely heard today in this country. Gubaidulina writes wonderful music, but sparingly. Taverner writes inert music, lacking in tension and resonance; it just sits there, daring you to complain.

Górecki writes wonderful music, too, and to this taste his insanely popular
Symphony No. 3, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, deserved all its success. But since that hit, more than a decade ago, Górecki’s output has declined, for whatever reason. Maybe he’s enjoying himself, maybe he’s truly laboring on the grandiose mass he’s long been promising for the Polish Pope.

All this time, while others have fallen by the wayside, Pärt has been working away in his chosen style, subtly varying it so as to avoid self-repetition. And he’s managed to turn out major works over the last two decades with commendable consistency.

There’s one other thing. Composers become successful when performers love to play their music. Pärt has loyal champions—Gidon Kremer, Keith Jarrett, Paul Hillier, Dennis Russell Davies, Neemi (and his son Paavo) Järvi, Hélène Grimaud, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. More important than any of them, he won the loyalty of Manfred Eicher, who has produced a remarkable number of Pärt recordings for his ECM label. Few other living composers can boast as comprehensive a recorded documentation of their work. And now other labels are catching up. So much, here at least, for the crisis in the classical recording business.

Arvo Pärt was born in Paide, Estonia, in 1935, meaning that we are likely to be hearing even more of his music in his upcoming 70th birthday year. He grew up in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, and was trained there. From 1958 to 1967 he was recording director and composer in residence for Estonian Radio, turning out more than 50 film scores. Film music, not under the suzerainty of the official Soviet Composers’ Unions, was a way for dissident composers to express themselves more freely—Gubaidulina did the same. Not that Pärt has encouraged the propagation of these early youthful efforts.

In his early concert music, Pärt stuck fairly closely to the approved Shostakovich/Prokofiev models. But in 1960 he entered a new phase with his first orchestral score, Nekrolog, which was Estonia’s first 12-tone composition. He also experimented with avant-garde collage and improvisatory techniques, but some combination of official disapproval and his own dissatisfaction pushed him in new directions.

The shift from these earlier experiments to Pärt’s mature style came from the late 1960s to the mid ’70s. Credo (1968), recently recorded by Grimaud and Salonen for Deutsche Grammophon, is such a transitional piece: collage technique but religious in essence, with allusions to Bach. But his music soon evolved beyond collage. During this time he immersed himself in the study of medieval and ancient music with a pronounced spiritual bent. The modes and practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church held a special fascination.

Pärt has called his mature style “tintinnabuli,” Latin for littlebells. The Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky, and especially the miraculous bell-forging scene in his masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, were particularly close to Pärt’s heart. And like Tarkovsky, he had to struggle against Soviet-era disapproval of his spiritual concerns. He finally emigrated with his family in 1980, heading for Israel, getting waylaid in Vienna, and winding up in a pleasant home in a leafy southern suburb of (the former West) Berlin.

Typically in his mature music, Pärt juxtaposes the grave reiteration
of a home triad with scale patterns. There is a pervasive grave sadness: Wilfrid Mellers once wrote nicely that his “melodic lines droop of their own weight.” All this might seem simplistic, yet Pärt sustains interest through some combination of varying the materials and phrase-lengths, introducing “dissonance” (in quotes because, laws of physics aside, the absence of functional harmonic movement makes it a little hard to proclaim any interval more dissonant than another), and composing for different forces.

Most of Pärt’s work over the last 30 years has been for various chamber combinations, orchestra, and/or chorus. Choral music, sometimes unaccompanied, is his special love, and has made his music popular with amateur and professional choruses worldwide. Hillier, who has written a book about Pärt for Oxford University Press, has made several particularly lovely choral CD’s for ECM.

Solo instrumental music has been lower on his list of priorities, and he has never ventured into opera or musical theater. A curiosity has been his seemingly obsessive rearrangements, apparently in response to market demand, of his popular pieces for varied forces. Fratres, for instance, exists in at least nine versions: the original,  for “old or new instruments”; for violin and piano; for four, six, eight, or 12 cellos; for string quartet; for cello and piano; for wind octet and percussion; for strings and percussion; for violin, string orchestra, and percussion; and for trombone, string orchestra, and percussion.

However different each version or indeed each work is from another, the prevailing impression is hushed, rapt, concentrated, and, yes, spiritual. There is much that people love: I can still remember the London premiere of the St. John Passion some 20 years ago, with a church packed with eager music-lovers, sitting and sprawling and standing, held in the music’s thrall.

Pärt’s catalogue is full of pieces like this. From the Stabat Mater to Trisagion, from the gorgeous Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten to the ethereal a cappella Kanon Pokajanen, composed on an eighth-century Church Slavonic tune for the 750th anniversary of the Cologne Cathedral, his music seems imbued with an extra-musical aura.

Musicians, or at least musical modernists, are suspicious of that kind of talk; it smacks of kitsch. There is no question that Pärt’s religiosity, and his monk-like personal demeanor, contribute to the image. But the proof lies in the music, and for many of us, Pärt has built and sustained a body of work that places him among the most important composers of our time.

John Rockwell is the senior cultural correspondent of The New York Times. In January he will become the paper’s chief dance critic. He has written books on contemporary American music and Frank Sinatra.


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