ARVO PÄRT.NOSTALGIA IN THE HARMONY OF SPHERES
The cosmos of Arvo Pärt’s music is governed by numbers, the unalterable order of transparent structures, the rigour of precisely fixed sound principles. There is no space for chance here, for improvisation, or for emotional discord. Time flows with the slow rhythm of long phrases, measured by the eternal duration of the holy world. This music has its firm foundations, inviolable roots, strict rules. It would seem that one cannot enter into an emotional dialogue with it, that this simple symmetry rejects experience, kills the body, numbs the senses. The truth, however, is something entirely opposite and the seemingly absolutely impossible happens. Arvo Pärt’s compositions stir up emotions, enchant, leave no one indifferent. There is deep feeling in those sounds, a passionate confession of faith, a touching, humble and completely uncommon sincerity. But there is also something else: an attempt to find something that was lost a long time ago – a childlike simplicity, a holy order of things, voices of the lost motherland. An absence, which sometimes becomes apparent, but which can never be filled, which pulses with delicate stings, small ruptures. The punctum of uncertainty. Nostalgia.
It is said that the piano at young Arvo Pärt’s home, which saw him produce his first notes, had a broken mid-section of the keyboard, so it only produced the highest and the lowest sounds. What compositions could have been created in this way? Simple, infantile melodies, only several repeating sounds – like crystals reflecting light, with incredible brightness and perfectly smooth texture. The principle of these compositions is simple – tintinnabuli, the right of bells, constantly circling around one central sound, supported with strong, tonal foundations. This music follows rules – rules which seem so simple that there is no need to explain them. A world pure at its creation, sullied by nothing. Only a child possesses such a world – or someone who has faith like a child.
The totally unassuming piano miniature Für Alina was a breakthrough in the creative life of the composer. It was a beginning of a new aesthetic language, which will become his hallmark. In 1976 the world of music was introduced not only to a new, brilliant and totally original composing technique, but also something much, much more. Everyone – both the listeners and the creators – saw that the avant-garde and the modern – which epitomised the damaged, deconstructed world, devoid of any rules – do not have to reign indivisibly in concert halls. Arvo Pärt’s works showed that another narration about reality is possible – seeing not dissonance, but harmony, pure symmetry instead of intricacy and curvature.
This small rock (or maybe even – a pebble?) foreshadowed a true avalanche – Henryk Mikołaj Górecki finished his Symphony No.3 of Sorrowful Songs at about the same time, while Wojciech Kilar composed his first symphonic and choral frescos filled with avid religiousness. In Great Britain John Taverner’s musical searchings take new directions, while Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach – a stunning plotless opera and an apotheosis not of dense complicated textures, but repetition and simplicity – premieres in Avignon. Something begins to crack – music is to refer to a different space to reach further – beyond earthly matter – to the sphere of sacrum, to lend meaning to our scarred existence. Thus, we have the return to harmony, transparent forms, melodically conducted phrases. If we wish to believe in a permanent world, we have to provide our music with such foundations. What’s found in heaven – is found in sound.
Arvo Pärt remains loyal to his choice. While other converted composers often steer away from their previously chosen paths, he composes in the same way, using the same technique, childlike in its simplicity. This complete trust invested in one composing technique was not an easy thing to achieve - there were many false routes, ramblings, creative mistakes. Arvo Pärt’s rebellion against modernist aesthetics matured slowly, it manifested itself in dramatic compositions and a creative crisis. As if he had an issue with the dissonant avant-garde all along, as if something felt uncomfortable, or turned out to be incongruous with his internal world. This soulful, personal longing for peace, harmony, and divine order may be heard in several striking compositions of the Estonian composer from the middle years of his creative path. But for now let us look at the very beginnings.
The creator of Für Alina begins with experiments – with atonal music, dodecaphony, serialism. In 1950s and 1960s he is one of the most innovative composers in the whole of the USSR: Symphony No.1 or Partita for the piano are weaved from dissonances and dodecaphonic structures – they are disquieting works, nervous, ever-rushing – direction unknown – maybe to perdition. Nowadays, they are rarely played on concerts – perhaps it is not surprising, they are more like student’s exercises, early searchings for own style, youthful fantasies. But still those compositions have something that does not allow one to remain indifferent, something surprising, striking, something that plucks away from the obvious atonal matter of the works. They are memories from the musical past – old forms of fugue, canon, or partita which are composed by Arvo Pärt in dissonant structures. One could accuse those pieces of inconsequence, lack of cohesion, clear aesthetics. However, there is also something more here – a longing for the great music of masters, a humble homage paid to them, an attempt at dialogue. Nostalgia.
With time, this transparent clarity of sound – perfect harmony and simplicity of music forms from epochs gone by – is heard louder, takes on hues, contours, colours. For that reason the works from this middle, collage period are very much like duels – between the old and the new, the nostalgic, spiritual order of memories and the hard rules of the material world. In Collage über B-A-C-H cannonades of dissonances are accompanied by brilliant stylisations; Credo begins with the luminosity of Bach’s Preludium C-dur, which is drowned after a moment in the despairing cry of the choir and the orchestra, only to finally shine again with ideal harmony. Arvo Pärt starts to speak slowly with his own voice, he regains lost illusions, opens up to the echoes from the past. Those compositions herald the new language, which is not afraid to come back to the very origins of sound, to childlike simplicity, to divine order. But to cross that threshold to Paradiso, one needs to pass Purgatorio, doubt, atonement. Years of creative crisis. Silence.
And we come back to Für Alina – but that should surprise no-one, after all, sounds are repeated in this little piano gem, they draw broad circles, they descend in infinite, crystal particles. There are not many such pieces in Arvo Pärt’s body of work. After all, instrumental music does not form the core of his oeuvre. Those few most famous ones – Für Alina, Fratres, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten or Spiegel im Spiegel, come from the composer’s breakthrough period in 1970s, in which all the traits of the new musical language come forward with particular clarity. The tintinnabuli principle – laying at its basis – provides the music with strong, tonal foundations, maintains transparent harmony, shies away from dissonance. However, simultaneously it endows it with mystical austerity, noble uniformity, it makes the works exist in ageless sound-space, comprising of repeating tones and bass foundations. The compositions charm with their simplicity, which must derive from the very depth of experience, from the most basic emotions – the ones we always want to revisit, the ones we wish to resurrect. Spiegel im Spiegel is like a child’s kaleidoscope – splits light into dozens of rays, weaving a simple, almost motherly melody. Cantus in light in Memory of Benjamin Britten is mourning in purest form in its sounds slowly descending into the abyss of death, in its rhythms of deliberate passing, measured by the tolling bell. And then there is Fratres – majestic, austere chorale, echoes of ascetic consonance, sounding from a distant, centuries-old monastery. The penitential humility of prayer.
Sacrum lies at the core and forms the very essence of Arvo Pärt’s music. Most of his works are choral compositions – sung prayers or musical renditions of liturgy. It is a conscious choice, not so much aesthetic as ethic, religious, or even – very personal, almost intimate. In those compositions the phrase closely follows holy words, music omits the pitfall of pretentious emotionality, it does not comment, it steers away from simplistic illustration. These are firmly planted elongated columns of sound, majestic vertical lines of chords, with a beauty reminiscent of the austere walls of Romanesque churches. The pureness and simplicity of the sacral works of Arvo Pärt are an expression of deep, humble faith. If one believes in a world of ideal divine order – music becomes its reflection. And perhaps that is why those works are full of calm and trust in the power of the holy words – in the ascetic verse of the confession of faith in Summa, the bright archaising phrases of Da pacem Domine and Zwei slawische Psalmen or even in the noble severity of the Passion of Saint John. Excessive lament and mourning are absent form here, substituted with zealous, sincere hope for the Resurrection. For Salvation.
This music is not measured with earthly rhythm of finite time, but rather with the holy eternity of the ever-regenerating and everlasting myth. Entering the space of Arvo Pärt’s works is entering into different space in which the soul parts with the body for a moment and exists in slow suspension, in a vestibule of eternity. One has to abandon habits of logical, causal order of events and narrative development – because there is seemingly little happening in this music: there is only the slow movement of melody, repetitive phrases, uniform texture and harmony, constantly dominating central sound. The duration of sound replete with sanctity – which does not grow, does not head towards resolution and coda, but simply exists. After all, how else to describe infinity, how to compose the music of eternity? Arvo Pärt succeeds in the seemingly impossible – his notes tell about a world, which does not exist, and which we can only imagine, pray for, in the existence of which we can only have faith. It is a mistake, however, to think that the Estonian composer’s narrations are filled with exultation and pathos (which are easy to fall into when touching upon matters of utmost importance). They are humble narrations, modest, permeated with stories from own personal experience. Engulfed in intimate closeness, almost affectionate. Nostalgic.
Great narrations of God and Salvation always take place besides small private stories. Rejected in his own country, Arvo Pärt emigrated to Berlin in 1981. There he will find recognition and creative freedom, and his music, thanks to the cooperation with the famous Munich label ECM, will reach thousands of listeners. But there still remains a deeply engrained sorrow, a sense of loss, which cannot be filled, a type of longing experienced by those who have been separated from their roots. And Arvo Pärt had plenty of those. He was raised in a Protestant home, but he soon converted to the Orthodox Church, while his religious music is entwined with the Roman Catholic Liturgy. The sources of his works are a true kaleidoscope of influences and cultures – from Western Mediterranean Europe, through Eastern Slavic lands and to the austere Scandinavia. It is hard to find a common denominator for Pärt’s oeuvre, to subject it to easy classification – his works reflect the great musical traditions of Europe, which have been a constant source of inspiration for the composer - the Medieval Chorale and organum, Bach’s polyphony, Romantic symphony or even dodecaphonic deconstruction. His works are ecumenical in the full sense of the word – joining denominations and religious systems divided in the ages past. Because what is most important here is not language, ritual or liturgical form, but God himself. His most fundamental essence. Sanctity.
It is, therefore, not surprising that this open, polyphonous body of work inspires artists from various genres and aesthetics until today – suffice to mention Paul Thomas Anderson, Tom Tykwer or Jean-Luc Godard. Two examples. Für Alina in The Banishment by Andrey Zvyagintsev – a film-myth about the most enduring, engrained in timelessness, archetypes – with several of its crystal piano sounds expressed most poignantly the hidden loneliness of two people. While Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, with its baroque aesthetics, employs the song My Heart’s in the Highlands to mark the yearning for the long forgotten God, for the meaning of existence, something beyond the twinkling facade of Roman lifestyle. And this is its most common role in other works of art - whether cinematic or theatrical – Pärt’s music spirits you away, shows that there is something beyond the world of the characters displayed on the big screen, and the reality itself is not flat, dead, but alive, infinite. Eternal.
Longing for something long lost: for the perfect order in the world and the order present in the works of the masters from the previous epochs, for childlike simplicity, divine harmony. Nostalgia. It is the matter of which Arvo Pärt’s music is weaved – an attempt to resurrect the past with sound, to find what has been lost, a composer’s confession of humble faith. This music has its own rigid principles based on numbers – it pretends nothing, does not complicate, trusts what is simple and perfectly clear. Trusts in God, who is the source of everything – hence the perfect order of sounds, immutability of transparent structures. It is honest, open, immersed in mythical, eternal timelessness. Or maybe it is best to simply say – infinitely beautiful?
One last time, Für Alina. Where there is music, there must be poetry – only through their medium can one describe existence simply and profoundly. A poem by Tomas Tranströmer – maybe the last of the great masters of European literature –is like a mirror image of Pärt’s music, and this particular piano miniature. Weaved not from sounds, but words:
A bluish glow
spills out of my clothes.
Grinding tambourines of ice.
I close my eyes.
There is a voiceless world
there is a crevice
where the dead
are smuggled through the frontier .
Coda. The delicate crystals of words and notes, slowly descending onto the bright surface of sound. The unsullied purity of the world, primeval harmony, light. A small crevice where death breaks through, and the constant absence, the longing which cannot be healed. Emptiness, existence in loss. Nostalgia.
 T. Tranströmer, Przesilenie zimowe, translation L. Neuger, [w:] idem, Wiersze i proza. 1954–2004, Cracow 2012, s. 353.