By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERUQE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – September 9, 2015) — Esteemed composer Arvo Pärt turns eighty on September 11th, 2015. And the music community of the world is afloat with his music.
As an example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is holding a commemorative concert , and New York radio station, WQXR, is hosting a 24-hour marathon of his music . As the most performed living composer four years running , Arvo Pärt’s music has filled concert halls, homes—through robust CD sales, and movie theaters across the world .
Yet the finest commemorative item produced this year is the book, Out of Silence, written by Peter C. Bouteneff . As a musician, theologian, and acquaintance of Pärt, Bouteneff has done admirers of Part’s music a great service: he’s conjoined the profound nature of Pärt’s music with his deep Christian faith.
In nine chapters, Bouteneff explores Part’s music in terms of his use of Biblical and liturgical text, silence, and characteristics such as transcendence, sadness, joy, life and death. Out of Silence is a marvelous study of a composer and the integration of his faith through his art.
Born and raised in Paide, Estonia on September 11, 1935, on the eve of Communist Russia’s takeover, Part was baptized as a Lutheran in a rapidly changing country.
As a youth, Pärt would ride his bicycle around town listening to the music being broadcast over the loudspeakers. Fascinated by music, Pärt began his musical education at age seven and started composing his own pieces at age fifteen.
After the communist takeover, Pärt had a difficult time introducing his music into the political environment of his day. During the 1950’s Pärt’s music was considered very modern, incorporating avant-garde elements such as polytonality, and therefore considered degenerate by the communist authorities.
As Pärt progressed as a composer, he worked at a radio station, attended the Tallinn Conservatory of Music, and composed. His earliest compositions date from 1956.
By 1963, Pärt’s music was denounced by communist authorities for its ‘Western’ influence. However, it remained popular with the people of Estonia. Around this time, he began working in the film industry as a composer, creating scores for documentaries and movies.
In 1968, Pärt released a piece that caused great controversy under the communist Russian reign, officially an atheist nation. He composed a work entitled Credo (Latin for ‘I Believe.’)
Credo was Pärt’s first composition that announced a clear Christian message. The lyrics read: ‘I believe in Jesus Christ.’ Credo was written for piano, orchestra, and choir. Upon its first performance, the audience erupted in praise, calling for an immediate encore.
According to Pärt, ‘It was a huge success with the audience but the next morning there was a big scandal. It wasn’t the music as such that caused the problem; it was a matter of ideology. The piece had a religious text.’ The communist government immediately reacted: there would be no further performances of Credo.
The whole event caused Pärt to ponder his faith and his music; he sought new directions for both. For one, his faith strengthened, turning to the ancient Orthodox faith; and secondly, Pärt sought solace in ancient music, yearning to discover a new mode of musical composition.
An eight-year period of silence commenced as Part contemplated both his faith and music.
When Pärt returned to composing, his music captured a distinct Christian tone; vocal text became a primary concern. The influence of Gregorian chant, plainsong, and folk melodies became characteristic elements within his music.
By the mid 1970’s, Pärt began composing what many consider his trademark sound: tintinnabuli. Tintinnabuli is from the Latin, meaning, ‘bell.’
Pärt stated, ‘Tintinnabuli is the rule where the melody and the accompaniment are one.’ The result is what some refer to as ‘summoned by the bells,’ a symbolic call to prayer and thought.
‘Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers, in my life, my music, my work. Here I am alone with silence. I build with the most primitive materials, three notes of a triad, like bells,’ Part said in an interview regarding his new approach towards composition.
Some of his most popular works (‘Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten,’ ‘Spiegel im Spiegel,’ and ‘Fratres’) were written during this period.
Today, Pärt continues his quest for silence, bells, and a depth to the Christian faith that transcends much of the music performed in concert halls around the world. In fact, Pärt prefers that his music be played in churches, for both the sonic quality and the symbolic nature.
But life changed once again for Pärt. In 1980, he and his wife Nora defected to Austria. They later moved to Germany on a Jewish descent emigration (Nora was of Jewish descent), ending up in West Germany.
Since the 1980’s, Pärt continues to create sublime and beautiful compositions. With pieces such as ‘Passio’ (with lyrics taken from the gospel of John), ‘Te Deum’ (To God), and ‘Kanon Pokajanen’ (Canon of Repentance), Pärt has created a collection that is considered by many to be the finest of any living composer.
So why is Arvo Pärt significant?
First, he matters as a composer. Pärt is an amazing, thoughtful, and profound composer, offering a rich tapestry of sonic tonalities. And like any great composer, his music should be heard.
Second, Pärt matters as a man of conscience. Like any person who has stood in the face of oppression (in his case communism) and remained firm in his convictions, his story must be told.
Third, Pärt matters as a man of faith who acts in the midst an age of unbelief and cynicism. His Christian journey in life is both personal and profound.
Finally, Pärt matters as one who is able to incorporate art with his Christian faith in the highest capacity. He does so as composer of transcendence, one who has developed a personal stamp of excellence, moving his audience towards thoughts of eternity and God’s creative act in the person of Jesus Christ.
Photo captions: 1) Arvo Pärt. 2) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA) and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). As a published author, editor, radio host, recording artist, and visual artist, Brian spends his free time with his three children and wife, painting, writing music, reading, and visiting art museums. To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon .
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