Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Arvo Pärt

It's been some while, but in the spirit of new beginnings (it's the first day of the semester for me) I feel it's a good time to post something here.

Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer who defected from the Soviet Union to live in Vienna. His most successful music is often defined by using tintinnabulati (a word stolen from Poe's "The Bells") which describes how he will often have one voice repeatedly play the notes from a triad while a second voice will move around with the melody. He is a minimalist composer, and much of his work after emigrating has been dedicated to composing holy music. His Te Deum in particular I find remarkable, albeit rather long. Today though I will post his Magnificat, which I think is a very good introduction to the kinds of music he writes.

In the Magnificat, you can hear from the very get go how he uses tintinnabuli - it opens with one voice singing a melody, while another voice sings a single note repeatedly in the same rhythm as the melody. As the work progresses, you can hear him adding on the notes of a triad to that background note. It is not an exceptionally long work, only about 7 minutes, and is only written for chorus and soloists. The Magnificat is a prayer that in the bible was first spoken by Mary upon finding out she was Jesus's mother-to-be. There is a long tradition of extremely well written Magnificats out there, especially because they are part of the larger Catholic Vespers service. Pärt's work is a very intimate sounding version that is much more introspective sounding than most settings which uses a lot of dissonance as part of a very gradual way for the work to unfold. I think it is a work that show's a lot of mastery of the idea of breath in music, and which takes all the time it needs to get across its ideas, making sure not to rush anything, which can be a very beautiful thing.

The video I found is accompanied by clips of scenes in 1950s Americana that have a very gloomy look to them from the quality of the film (at least to my mind). At first I was skeptical of the point of the video, but I did find the images hypnotic as I watched, so I felt that was a quality it shared with the music and made it seem to make more sense. Enjoy.

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