Saturday, June 11, 2016

The political genesis of the work of Arvo Pärt

“One line is like freedom, and the triad line is like discipline. It must work together" Arvo Pärt

"I apologize but I cannot help you with words. I am a composer and express myself with sounds'. Arvo Pärt

The Estonian born composer Arvo Pärt is one of the most influential contemporary classical composers in the world. His simplified compositional technique, known as tintinnabuli, has defined his musical style since the late 1970's and appears in compositions such as Fur Alina, Fratres, Spiegel im SpiegelCantus  in Memoriam Benjamin Britten and Tabula Rasa.

Tintinnabuli (the latin word for bell) is a particular style of composition that weaves together melodic lines in which one voice or instrument outlines a chord, while the other circulates around it. The music moves slowly in patterns and waves, creating austere, hypnotic and achingly beautiful musical patterns. The sparse and repetitive arrangements give the listener space to experience and interpret the music.

While Arvo Pärt is one of the most performed classical composers in the world, the political significance and genesis of his work is generally overlooked. Pärt's work is usually discussed primarily in terms of his faith and religiosity, not surprising given his Eastern orthodox Christianity.

Pärt makes no claim to be a political composer and dismisses any political interpretation of his work claiming that:
"I have never participated in political art. My compositions have never been political, even the ‘Khodorkovsky’ Symphony has really nothing to do with politics".

However, Pärt's work has powerful political resonances and emerged out of a matrix of political forces- his courage in refusing to compose music to satisfy Soviet authorities; his banning by the Russian authorities and subsequent internal exile' within Estonia; his subsequent external exile from Estonia to the west; the cultural tradition in Estonia whereby music and song are a means to give voice to political motivations and aspirations, and his willingness to speak out and take a stand against injustice and suffering.

Pärt was born born in 1935 in Paide in Estonia, then part of the communist Soviet Union. After completing military service he attended and graduated from the Tallinan Conservatory in 1963. From 1958-1967 he worked as a recording engineer with Estonian Radio. 

Pärt never produced the strictly political music expected of Soviet composers and his early music was censored by the Soviet authorities in the 1960s as its religious message was considered an act of political dissidence. He fell quiet for half a decade and emerged in 1976 with "Fur Alina", the first of his distinctive tintinnabuli style compositions.

His work was promptly banned in the USSR and Pärt was permitted to emigrate in January 1980, first to Vienna and then to Berlin, where he settled. He now divides his time between Berlin and Tallinn. 

When he left the Soviet Union with his wife and 2 sons, Pärt was stopped by border police for a luggage search. He told the New York Times:
“We had only seven suitcases, full of my scores, records and tapes. They said, ‘Let’s listen.’ It was a big station. No one else was there. We took my record player and played ‘Cantus.’ It was like liturgy. Then they played another record, ‘Missa Syllabica.’ They were so friendly to us. I think it is the first time in the history of the Soviet Union that the police are friendly.”

Commenting on that incident Pärt's wife noted“I saw the power of music to transform people.”

Pärt was influenced by the Estonian cultural milieu where music has always been a key political force. In the 1980's music and song was the mechanism used to drive the movement for Estonian independence from the Soviet Union. 

Estonia made its revolution by song. During what is referred to as 'the Singing Revolution', Estonians gathered to organise for independence under the guise of singing. In June 1988, hundreds of thousands of people gathered for five successive nights to sing protest songs. Within 3 years Estonia had achieved independence from Soviet rule.

Arvo Pärt also uses his work to express solidarity with those who suffer and resist injustice.

He created a musical piece Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fatima in response to a painting based on photography taken at Auschwitz. His prayer of peace Da pacem Domine was a personal tribute to the victims of the Madrid Terrorist attack. He also composed Fur Lennart in memorian for the funeral service of Lennart Meri, the second elected President of the Estonian Republic after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Pärt dedicated every performance of his works in 2006 and 2007 to the memory of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was murdered in Moscow in 2006. Pärt wrote:

"Anna Politkovskaya staked her entire talent, energy and—in the end—even her life on saving people who had become victims of the abuses prevailing in Russia."

Arvo Pärt's own life has political significance - his courage in refusing to bow to state authoritarianism, his fortitude in the face of attacks and criticism from powerful interests, his unflinching persistence and perseverance and his belief in the power of artistic expression to break down the walls of prejudice, force and political power.

In a profile of  Arvo Pärt in the Guardian, Gunter Atteln describes Pärt as a man of courage, humility and authenticity who sees the injustices of the world and takes a political stand against them. Atteln describes Pärt's work as as deeply human, rather than political, although the distinction is somewhat semantic.

Pärt has spoken out politically about events in Russia and criticized Vladimir Putin. He said Putin has:

'.... spread around him massive amounts of hostility and aggression, which has its own dynamics and can only grow. You cannot take it back anymore. There is no control over it today. It cannot be called anything else but a crime. It is more than a crime".

Pärt's work also has political resonance in the way it evokes and resonates an ethos of deep simplicity and peacefulness- silence, stillness, contemplation, humility, a lack of rhetorical grandiosity- that acts as a counterbalance to the consumerism of capitalist societies.

Pärt's music is described by one commentator as evoking 'the radical disruptiveness of the profoundly peaceful'.

James Soemijantoro Wilson refers to  Pärt's music as part of the 'rebel yell of classic music' and cites Alex Ross from his book the Rest is Noise:

"It is not hard to guess why Pärt and several like-minded composers—notably Henryk Górecki and John Tavener—achieved a degree of mass appeal during the global economic booms of the eighties and nineties; they provided oases of repose in a technologically oversaturated culture. For some, Pärt’s strange spiritual purity filled a more desperate need; a nurse in a hospital ward in New York regularly played Tabula Rasa for young men who were dying of AIDS, and in their last days they asked to hear it again and again.”
This piece by Frederic Kiernan in The Conversation provides detailed background on Pärt's history and compositions.

A detailed biography of Pärt is hereA link to a documentary about Arvo Pärt titled The Lost Paradise by Robert Wilson is here. A link to another documentary about Pärt, Even if I Lose Everything  by Dorian Supin is here.

More stories about Arvo Pärt are here, here and here.

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