Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Arvo Part is one of my favorite living composers and writes beautiful sacred music. He is from Estonia, which was occupied by the USSR during WWII, and during the cold war his work was not accepted by the Soviet establishment, so he emigrated to the west and lived in Vienna and Berlin. After the turn of the century, he returned to Estonia and now lives in Tallinn.

Part's early work was influenced by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bartok. He then began to compose using Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique and serialism. Some of his earlier work was banned by Soviet censors, but this style also proved to be a creative dead-end for him. 

Part entered several periods of contemplative silence, during which he studied choral music from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Part's Third Symphony (1971) was a transitional piece using the spirit of early European polyphony, and from this point on he immersed himself in early music. He studied plainsong, Gregorian chant, and the emergence of polyphony in the European Renaissance.

After this period, the music that started to emerge was radically different. Some of his most well-known pieces were written at this time including Fratres, Cantus In Memoriam of Benjamin Britten, and Tabula Rasa. The music from this period is described as tintinnabuli - like the ringing of bells. Spiegel im Spiegel (1978) is a well-known example of this style. The music is characterised by simple harmonies, often single unadorned notes, or triads, with simple rhythms and non-changing tempos. They are frequently settings for sacred texts, although he usually uses Latin or the Church Slavonic language used in Orthodox liturgy. Large scale works include St. John Passion, Te Deum, and Litany. Choral works from this period include Magnificat and The Beatitudes.

Part's music came to the attention of the west when he started recording with Manfred Eicher of the German label ECM in 1984. The first recording was called Arvo Part - Tabula Rasa and included the compositions Tabula Rasa, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten and two versions of Fratres, one for violin and piano, and the other for 12 celli. This is a masterpiece of an album and Fratres is probably my favorite composition by Part for its simple haunting beauty. There are many versions of Fratres as it works with many different combinations of instruments. The musicians on this record include, Gidon Kremer on violin, Keith Jarrett on piano, Tatjana Grindenko on violin, and the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke on prepared piano. Dennis Russell Davies conducts the Staatsorchester Stuttgart. The album also includes contributions by the 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Saulius Sondeckis.

Part has now made several recordings with ECM including Arbos, Alina, Litany, and Orient Occident. One recent recording In Principio contains both orchestral works and  choral music, and includes the beautiful pieces - La Sindone, Da Pacem Domine, Mein Wag, and Fur Lennart  in Memoriam.

An earlier recording, I would highly recommend to get a good overview of Part's music is Collage on Chandos with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Neeme Jarvi. This includes early compositions like Collage on Bach (1964), and Symphony Number Two(1966), as well as pieces from the later style including Summa, Fratres, and Festina Lente.

In 2010, Part's Symphony No. 4 (2008) premiered in Los Angeles and was his first symphony in 37 years. A recording of it has now been released by ECM.

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