Arvo Pärt in Ireland
In 1998, I became the classical music manager in a branch of Tower Records in Dublin. It was one of the greatest revelations of my life. As a devotee up to then of composers such as Stravinsky, Webern, Ligeti, Messiean, Takemitsu, Schnittke and Berio, I was surprised to see just how little of this music actually sold. What did sell was the following: the American Minimalists, the English composer Gavin Bryars, the Georgian Kancheli, (the recently deceased) Stockhausen, and some Boulez, but above all, the ‘holy trinity’ of Arvo Pärt, John Tavener and Henryk Górecki. A couple of years later I was working for RTÉ lyric fm, writing and presenting a range of programmes on new music, early music, romantic music and baroque music. And yet, in terms of the listener response, who do you think provoked the most enquiries? Pärt, Górecki, Reich and Ligeti – in that order.
Ligeti was a giant, Reich is inescapable, and it is still intriguing to think that a modern Polish composer could outsell the likes of Madonna with Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. But every Pärt release has sold consistently well and he has gone on to find a much wider audience than all of them.
For an understanding of Pärt’s style, time-travel back to 1976 and the beginnings of his then ‘new’ style, when Estonia was still part of the USSR. The Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten and Tabula Rasa had the Soviet authorities totally bewildered. The regime had only just started to come around to Western compositional techniques – and here was Pärt relinquishing them. Even musicians were baffled by him: the players, who first saw the score of the Tabula Rasa, cried out, ‘Where is the music?’ What is more, his music was now unquestionably religious. He had converted to the Russian Orthodox faith. Whatever about musical modernism, the sacred was still taboo in Soviet Russia.
Pärt has elements of the minimalist approach, but his own peculiar take on it is very different, in part reflecting his own religiosity. Pärt’s whole conception of music is indelibly tied to a sense of art as ritual, art as a spiritual and contemplative revelation. Time is everything in minimalism – no matter what brand you’re dealing with. Everything in minimalism is in the present; the process is here and now, palpable, visceral.
Pärt’s musical language is easy to categorise, but it is not easy to describe. It is minimal in the sense that, in his pieces, small quantities of basically tonal material tend to be developed over seemingly long spans of time. But because it is often monochrome, deliberately anti-dramatic and neutral, it achieves its extraordinary and numinous effect through the simplest of means. It’s often beautiful music but it can often be remote too, and it has a contemplative aura that attracts and/or repels.
In Pärt, the music ushers us into the presence of a recurring process that transcends repetition; and because this is a rite it’s also an act of worship or contemplation – it is T.S. Eliot’s ‘still point of the turning world’. For all that, critics point at Pärt and say that his music has not developed, does not develop and will not endure, that he is effectively stuck in a holy groove.
But Pärt has developed. Sit down with the early masterworks – Fratres, Tabula Rasa, the Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten and then turn to the Stabat Mater, Sarah Was Ninety Years Old, and Passio – a similar approach but on a much bigger canvas. The Kanon Pokajanen, Which was the son of… and Lamentate, however, are new departures. How significant these departures are is too early to tell as yet, but with two major Pärt events this February – the premiere of his first Irish commission in Louth and the RTÉ Living Music Festival in Dublin, we’ll have a chance to hear for ourselves.
CD sales, listener response, critical adulation, critical denigration – how we value any composer can be open to question, and particular only to our own tower from which we survey all around us. Nova on RTÉ lyric fm is the tower I am in at present. We celebrated a two-year birthday recently with a massive giveaway. Any guesses as to which composers the listeners preferred for their free CD?
Baltic Voices in Ireland takes place in Drogheda and Dundalk on 13-14 February. Hosted by The Louth Contemporary Music Society, it features a newly commissioned choral work from Arvo Pärt, performances from the Latvian State Choir, as well as new pieces by Irish composer Deirdre McKay and Latvian composer Georg Pelecis.
The RTÉ Living Music Festival focusing on the music of Pärt, with Scottish composer James MacMillan as Artistic Director, takes place in Dublin on 15-17 February. It features performances from the Hilliard Ensemble, Crash Ensemble, Darragh Morgan (violin), Joanna MacGregor (piano), the choral group Polyphony, the National Chamber Choir, and RTÉ performing groups, as well a commission from David Fennessey. Arvo Pärt will also give a composition seminar led by composer Ivan Moody.
Published on 1 January 2008