Among the events being commemorated in this year’s Proms season, is the 75th birthday of Arvo Pärt. This celebration kicked off on August 17 with a concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Edward Gardner, which began with Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, and which followed Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. The intention was that the Britten would follow without a break; the program actually said that. But as it turned out, the body language of both the conductor and the orchestra told the audience at the end of the Pärt that something had stopped, and the audience responded with applause, so that particular idea didn’t exactly work.

The Cantus was one of the first works written in Pärt’s tintinabulum style, in which a stepwise melody entwines with and is surrounded by the notes of a triad. It is said that Pärt developed this system (whatever it is) out of his disillusionment with the twelve-tone system (whatever that is). This narrative conforms to the current historiography of post-World War II music which can be summed up, paraphrasing Animal Farm, as “twelve-tone bad–-anything other than twelve-tone good,” which wants to represent “twelve tone music” as a sort of cruel and unnatural Stalinist dictatorship that was out for the complete and crushing domination of the musical world, and oppressed composers and audiences alike with an iron fist, until it was overthrown by a few brave souls, but in this particular case, if not any other, the story is more complicated than that.

Pärt and a number of his contemporaries in the Soviet Union enthusiastically embraced “serialism” as a political statement, so they saw it not as being a means of their intellectual and musical oppression, but in fact just the opposite. “Twelve-tone music” and “serialism” are terms that are hardly ever defined, and they have varieties of meanings even if they are, so it’s always a little hard to know exactly what anybody who says or said they are or were writing twelve-tone or serial music might actually be or have been up to, although it would seem likely that whatever it is or was, it would involve a music which would be heavily chromatic–or chromatic, anyway. In any case, when Pärt turned away from whatever it he was doing that he thought of as serial, he was not signaling some kind of return to or affirmation of a former status quo, but among, other things, moving to an equally, possibly more, subversive political statement, since it involved a language and techniques which evoked religious practices. He was developing a style which was much more pared down and diatonic and whose rhetoric and grammar was, if anything, probably more “modern” by means of its simplicity.

In its construction, the Cantus, like Pärt’s better known Fratres, is basically a process piece, which, when it has gone through its system, whatever it is, just stops. I have to say that I’ve always found Fratres to be arbitrary and unsatisfying and lacking what one might call, for lack of a better term, inner justification, by which I think I mean that I can’t hear that the process is linked to the events in the piece in a way that makes them seem to me to be musically compelling (a complaint that people often have about “twelve-tone” music), and its process not terribly interesting anyway, and the Cantus strikes me in much the same way, although the sound of it is quite striking and evocative. In the St. John Passion, one of Pärt’s best known works, which was the entirety of the late night Prom that followed this concert, the technical means seem to be completely successfully allied to the purposes of the piece. Having a text may be the crucial difference. At any rate the austerity of the style and the systematic ways in which the various parts of text are underlaid contribute to the drama of the piece and its very strong impact. The performance, by the BBC Singers, members of Endymion, organist Iain Farrington, Andrew Kennedy (Pilate), Sherratt (Jesus), Micaela Haslam, David Allsopp, Stephen Jeffes, and Stephen Charlesworth (the Evangelist Quartet), conducted by David Hill was completely compelling. It’s hard to see how it could have been better.

The third installment of the Pärt celebration was the UK Premiere of his Fourth Symphony, presented in a concert by the Pilharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, on August 20. It is the twenty-first century, and one can call a piece anything one wants to call it, but it’s hard to see what makes this piece a symphony (in three movements), rather than three pieces for orchestra. The program notes for the piece, by Peter Quinn, who is an authority on Pärt’s music, and should be trusted to know what he’s talking about, finds the piece to be a single expressive arc, starting from and returning to a point of “celestial timelessness,” but I was hard pressed to find it. I also found it difficult to justify the length of the third part, which was highly repetitious. I think the idea was to be sensitive to the nature of the pitches that kept being compared and repeated, but by the time some sort of perky Shostakovich march music marched its way from the lowest register to the highest and then ended, I felt as though I’d been sensitived to death. The audience went crazy at the end, though, so I’m probably all wrong, or, at least, my opinion is a minority one. I have noticed, though, that composers who involve themselves heavily in writing music with religious connections, end up having the quality of saintliness generally ascribed to them. That certainly seems to be the case with Pärt.

These concerts are available for listening on the BBC Iplayer ( for a week after the performance. Since they get rebroadcast, and those rebroadcasts are also available for a week, it’s possible to hear them later than that, although it sometimes takes some looking.

2 thoughts on “Pärt on the Proms”
  1. I agree with you on many of your points about Pärt’s music, particularly your astute observation that his works often suffer from being so deeply wedded to musical processes. Though there are stunningly beautiful moments in his pieces (such as the end of the “Agnus Dei” movement of the Berliner Messe), the listener must often navigate pedantic sections of counterpoint or plodding passages or tintinabulum to arrive at these oases.

    I am fascinated by your account of Pärt’s motivation to write in the 12-tone, total chromatic style at the beginning of his career (I’ve heard a couple of his early, serial orchestra pieces; they are nuts, in a good way). The mindset you discuss, that Pärt and his contemporaries used serialism to rebel against Soviet censorship, is contradictory to how many American composers viewed total chromaticism at the same time in history. At least according to Robert Beaser in a master class a couple years ago, many Americans (himself included) felt oppressed by serialism and saw the movement against it as a major revolution. Who knew non-musical circumstances could be so influential?

    By the way, I love your account of the audience’s head-scratching enthusiasm. The same thing happened to me at a Chigaco Symphony Concert several years ago where they played Philip Glass’s “Concerto for Two Timpani”. I was definitely in the minority, too, but could not express myself as well as you have in this article. I definitely don’t think your opinion of Pärt’s music is wrong, and not just because I agree with you to some extent. You’ve articulated yourself far too well to be unfounded, though there are – clearly – many people who think differently than you do.

    An interesting note about Pärt’s musical legacy: when asked who between Schoenberg and Cage was the greater composer, a professor of mine at Rice explained that he thought Schoenberg edged out Cage because of his mastery two enormously divergent styles. Can the same be said for Pärt? Obviously tintinabulation has not shifted the musical paradigm in the same way as Schoenberg’s total chromaticism and 12-tone technique. But, like Schoenberg, Pärt did show competence in the predominating style of his day before moving in the opposite direction.

  2. Pärt said, “The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity…I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality….”

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