Arvo Pärt was born near Tallinn in Estonia in 1935. His childhood was stamped with the Soviet occupation of Estonia, an occupation that lasted for half a century until the mid-1990s. From an early age, Pärt turned his attention to exploring the world of music, first by improvising on the piano, and, as a teenager, by listening to the radio. This passion for the radio later led to a job as a recording engineer for Estonian Radio and brought him into contact with as much new music as was allowed in an era of ideological control. Pärt became the first Estonian composer to use Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique - in Nekrolog (1960/1961), an orchestral piece which he wrote while still a student at Tallinn Conservatory. This piece attracted strong official disapproval for its connection with the music of the decadent West, but not enough to prevent Pärt from being one of the winners of a USSR-wide competition for young composers in 1962.
Throughout the 1960s, Pärt continued trying to make sense of the Western musical canon and his own place in it. J.S.Bach and Tchaikovsky are the respective focal points in Collage on the theme B-A-C-H and his Second Symphony, while Credo (1968) is a nightmare metamorphosis of Bach’s C major Prelude (from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier). The music of Credo is shocking enough, but what landed the composer in trouble this time was the blatant declaration of Christian faith: "I believe in Jesus Christ". The piece was banned across the Soviet Union.
Retreating from such hostility, Pärt spent time re-examining the music of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages, and in 1971 wrote a Third Symphony in which these influences surface from time to time. For several years afterwards he produced almost no scores except music for films, which had always been part of his professional musical life. Away from public attention he immersed himself in plainchant and contemplated the absolute basic elements of musical language.
Pärt began to understand afresh the vast sonic possibilities within a single note, and the importance and omnipresence of the simple triad (a chord of three notes). These two discoveries were first made public in the tiny piano piece For Alina (1976), where one voice moves by step from and to a central note, first up then down, and the other voice articulates the three notes of a triad. Pärt formalised this principle and gave it the name of tintinnabuli: "Tintinnabuli is the mathematically exact connection from one line to another.....tintinnabuli is the rule where the melody and the accompaniment [accompanying voice]...is one. One plus one, it is one - it is not two. This is the secret of this technique."
In 1980 the Pärt family emigrated from Estonia and after a short time in Vienna settled in Berlin. Soon after emigrating, Arvo Pärt wrote his setting of the
St John Passion using the tintinnabuli principle, and since then he has concentrated mainly on sacred vocal works including the Seven Magnificat Antiphons (1988), the Miserere (1989), The Beatitudes (1990) and the Litany (1994).
For each new piece of music, Pärt devises a set of laws from which every pitch and every duration, and even the structure of the piece will naturally unfold. He compares this with the work of the original Creator: "my focus is what was ‘before’ the Big Bang...where God had created the formula". In Pärt’s vocal music it is the text which provides both the emotional framework and a set of values (syllables, words, sentences) to be processed using this set of laws or formula. He considers the text to be "more important than the music" because "the text is stronger and it has given food for hundreds and thousands of composers, and it will continue so". In order to devise the formula, he tries "to find what is behind every word"; he is keenly aware of "how rich the words are and how rich the words that are not so important.....it is like people - if we look on the crowd, there is a king, there is a lord, there is a very poor man, there is a student.....the result is every time unexpected". Formula, however, does not mean formulaic; Pärt shapes and re-shapes the set of laws until they are exactly right for the particular piece and its text: "during the writing I come several times back to the very beginning idea and I can rewrite.....the formula shorter and clear.....if I have found it, then I can leave the free walk for music after the rules of this formula, because nothing can happen wrong then".
Settings of the Passion are part of an ancient tradition within the Church in which all four Gospel accounts of the Passion are sung to plainchant in Holy Week. Over the centuries the three main elements of the story were separated out onto different reciting tones, and later given to different singers: a priest to sing the words of Jesus, a deacon the main narrative, and a sub-deacon the words of other minor characters including the crowd, Pilate and Peter. One of the earliest surviving Passion settings with polyphonic music for the crowd and minor characters is the late mediaeval anonymous St Luke Passion in an English manuscript, Egerton 3307 (recorded by Tonus Peregrinus on Naxos 8.555861). By the time of J.S.Bach, the Passion setting had developed into a much more elaborate sequence of solo recitative and arias, chorales and choruses, all characterized according to their emotional function, and set in the local tongue.
In his setting, Arvo Pärt eschews all such word-painting and mood-setting, and instead returns to the neutrality of the Latin translation, with each part allocated a certain constant set of notes and durations throughout. Even the silences between sections have a precise duration specified by the number of syllables in the final word of the preceding sentence, and this is the first recording of Passio to take account of the composer’s recent clarification of that particular rule.
The main narrative in Passio is given to an Evangelist Quartet, accompanied by violin, oboe, cello and bassoon, whose music centres around the note A. Jesus’s words are set at a slower pace and sung by a bass continuously mirrored by the organ. Pilate is sung by a tenor, and his vocal part and organ accompaniment vacillate between an F and a B (exactly half an octave apart - the ambivalent tritone). All the other characters, including the crowd, are sung by the choir to music based around a triad of E major. Framing the biblical text are the opening title "Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem" and a final prayer in glorious D major: "Qui passus es pro nobis, miserere nobis. Amen." — "You who have suffered for us, have mercy upon us. Amen."
Despite the exactitude and apparent simplicity with which the notes are pre-determined by the composer, it is a testament to the power and refinement of the tintinnabuli principle that the text speaks through. A clear example of this is "crucifigeretur", the word with the greatest number of syllables in the entire text of the Passion. The singer’s melody moves, according to the formula, further from its home note than any other, which proves painfully apt as Jesus is handed over to be crucified.
Quotations taken from a conversation between Arvo Pärt and Antony Pitts recorded for BBC Radio 3 at the Royal Academy of Music in London on 29th March 2000.
ReviewsArvo PÃ¤rt's Passio is a shining beacon among countless late-20th-century religious works,' Rob Cowan declares at the beginning of his review. Certainly this characteristically ascetic setting of St John's gospel, composed in 1982, is one that transcends the doubt and nihilism of its own age to offer something with a simple honesty, quiet beauty and beguiling directness of expression. Antony Pitts' Tonus Peregrinus deliver an elegantly agile and eloquent performance of depth and distinction. - Rob Cowan, Gramophone (Editor's Choice)