Arvo Pärt: The Unexpected Profile of a Musical Revolutionary

arvo part the unexpected profile of a musical revolutionary

Pärt’s Cultural Influence and Ensuing Controversies

How can we judge if the events and the consequences in Pärt’s life in 1968 had any long-standing cultural influence? Let us look at the context: in classical music, historians look back to clear transitions when the reiterated elements that conformed the accepted style and its respective artistic goals definitely changed. There have been style shifts in music that responded immediately and abruptly to major social and political convulsions, such as the Reformation, the French Revolution, and World War I, but there have been also gradual style shifts over long processes, such as the Industrial Revolution.

Since much of the repertoire that we now call classical music was part of the fabric of religious and courtly life, it changed whenever the affected social classes changed. We can track the developments of classical music inside the higher social classes that wrote and kept records (the aristocracy, the clergy, and the artists and intellectuals who served them). Traditional folk styles preserved ethnic bonding in a comparatively immutable manner until the Industrial Revolution and the world wars provoked the migrations of large groups of people, gradually bringing many of these styles into the fold of the emerging urban popular genres.

By the time Pärt experienced the ostracism caused by his Credo of 1968, the separation seemed complete between the worlds of contemporary classical music and urban popular styles. During the student protests in Europe and Latin America in 1968, protest songs based on folk genres became the emblems of political discourse. Not so with contemporary classical music. Art music composers embraced the political diatribes through their compositions’ titles, text choices, and musical narratives. After all, most of them espoused many left-leaning causes, worker and peasant rights, and even full-fledged communism.

Furthermore, political causes seemed essential to artistic credibility at the time, to the point that composers originally from socialist countries, such as Krzysztof Penderecki, from Poland and a Catholic, would focus on the atomic bomb and the general cruelty of man, while having to remain circumspect about the communist domination of his country. Art music composers such as the Greek Iannis Xenakis (1922–2001) and the Italian Luigi Nono (1924–90) protested political repression, but their message stayed generally circumscribed to their audience of other intellectuals and artists, while support came from state institutions, not the audience. Their language continued to be uncompromisingly atonal and radical, alien to the taste of most regular concertgoers.

Their music never exerted a national cohesive role such as Giuseppe Verdi achieved with the Italians during the Risorgimento in the nineteenth century. The great avant-garde German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926–2012), who collaborated many times with film and theater auteur Volker Schlöndorff, is quoted as saying that the composer had come “to depend for everything on what the system has to offer.” The increasing awareness of this problem demanded that novel approaches to musical language and technology should include some form of genuine political engagement.

It seemed inevitable that after the 1980s, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the clamor in the West in favor of socialism would seem anachronistic. Radical modernism gradually evolved into a postmodern irony, represented by the Argentinian Mauricio Kagel (1931–2008), the Brazilian Gilberto Mendes (1922–), and others. Art music composers turned their intellectual sword unto themselves, mocking their own system, seeking a recombination of the elements into surreal or multidiscursive edifices, while provoking wistful self-criticism. Composers in the Soviet Union continued to test polystylism, as Alfred Schnittke had done. The continuous pressure for Soviet musical realism relented somewhat in the early 1980s, when Pärt’s contemporaries, such as the Tatar-Russian Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931) and the Georgian Giya Kancheli (b. 1935), enjoyed some tolerance in their explorations of a transcendent spirituality with elongated tempi and unusual tunings.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, there ensued an inkling of alternative compositional solutions among post-Soviet composers, but they continued to use relatively grand symphonic and epic formats, a legacy of the Soviet era. At the same time, Western urban popular music began a process of refinement, adopting even classical music gestures (such as in the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP of 1967), iconic folk music practices, and increasingly better poetry. In short, commercial urban popular music started to aspire to be art.

Compared to these polarizations, the stylistic choices by Pärt appear truly radical. He did not turn towards any of the salient directions of the West or the ex-Soviet republics. He simply separated himself completely from the fray by going towards the deep past. Surprisingly, as a consequence of these choices, he upended many conventional relationships in the classical music profession, including those between creator and performer, between the live concert and the recorded album, and between the position of the artist as a high priest of culture above the corruptions served out by the marketing and branding of popular music. This happened in more than one fashion.

Pärt’s search of compositional solutions in medieval and Renaissance music constituted only one facet of his relationship with this historic repertoire. His co-creative exchanges with eminent conductors who specialized in the performance practices of such repertoires emerged as an equally critical development, especially his rapport with Andres Mustonen, music director of the Estonian ensemble Hortus Musicus, and then, after migrating to Berlin, with the British conductor Paul Hillier, director of the Hilliard Ensemble. The success of his vocal music in live concerts eventually would depend on the approach to choral technique used for early music. This relationship between Pärt’s contemporary music and pre-1600 performance practices turned out to be revelatory and influential.

Although avant-garde composers in the West maintained ongoing relationships with instrumental and vocal virtuosos, their time arrow was “going forward” towards new and experimental performance techniques. Pärt benefited instead from the exquisite refinement of tuning, the vocal production without vibrato, and a non-emotional delivery appropriate for the sacred styles of Renaissance polyphony. The record suggests that Pärt remained uncertain of the quality of his choral music, including his breakout masterpiece, Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem (1982), until Paul Hillier and the Hilliard Ensemble premiered and recorded it in 1988.

This recording secured Pärt’s fame and prestige definitively. He also said, referring to another work, “without the Hilliard Ensemble, there would be no Miserere.” This reveals that the perception of the quality of Pärt’s vocal music in a live performance feels tied inextricably to the discipline of the historical performance practice of vocal music written before 1600. This aspect of Pärt’s evolution must stand as an essential component of his outlier profile.

Contrary to standing twentieth-century practice, Pärt also designed the musical content of his compositions to remain viable through variable instrumentations. Pärt has reiterated the transcendence of polyphony over timbre by transcribing many of his pieces (such as Fratres and Spiegel im Spiegel) for diverse instrumental combinations, in opposition to what had been the practice of Western music since late Romanticism, whereby a piece of music ideally remained tied to its original instrument. With the rise of the mid-twentieth century’s avant-garde, transcriptions of all kinds were deemed worthless musical exercises lacking in the necessary originality. Pärt ignored this pretension and integrated the art of transcription into his methodology.

Pärt also engaged in deep and co-creative relationships with other artists, especially with the record producer Manfred Eicher, who has led the label ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) as an artist in his own right. This has to be viewed in the context of a professional culture that values the primacy of the author above all other persons involved in the generation of a new composition. Pärt’s years as a sound engineer in Estonian Radio gave him the sensibility to compose his music with a view to recordings down the line. He would say that he counted Eicher and his team as his coauthors and among his blessings. This suggests that his music’s authentic point of perception can occur through the recording and not only through the live performance. This stands in many ways as a thoroughly radical concept. Pärt has accepted recordings as an alternative but equally valid mode of experiencing music, rather than a substitute in the absence of live performance. Although this may appear obvious to all of us who enjoy music regularly through a recorded medium, it is not clear that art music composers have accepted yet the recording as an end in itself, equivalent to live performance.

Consider this fact with a view to the enormous difficulty that Pärt’s pristine music poses to performers in a live concert. Apparently simple on the score, its success depends on impeccable delivery. The aesthetics of Pärt’s sound owe a lot to record producer Eicher. Understanding the already discussed relationship between Pärt’s music to the performance discipline of the virtuoso early music ensemble (as proven by conductor Paul Hillier), Eicher carefully designed Pärt’s recorded sound, and matched it with beautifully designed packages and gorgeous photographs of austere landscapes imbued with spiritual longing, for a vivid interdisciplinary experience. In short, Eicher co-created the Arvo Pärt “brand” with the composer himself. Their association has changed the balance of artistic validity between the act of live performance and the creation of a recording as an artistic sound object, but also stoked controversies about Pärt’s position as a genuine artist versus a commercial product.

These choices matched Pärt’s own motivations and inter-artistic leanings as someone with a sensibility for the visual image, and who understood design as one of the foundations for his music. These interactions with star conductors and record producers fluidly merged with the marketing of Pärt’s image, both by ECM and Universal Editions. There seemed to exist no friction between Pärt’s own lifestyle as a devout Orthodox Christian, his public statements, and the brand created about him as an ascetic artist projecting the image of the composer as a prophet or a theologian equal to an Orthodox icon painter. He became, after all, the winner of the Ratzinger Prize for theological achievements in . This brand has remained inviolable over thirty-five years because it is authentic. It also represents a successful application of what has been operational in popular music for decades. In short, Pärt did not reject a central aspect of modern celebrity culture. He has accepted it as a matter of contemporary life, and has not espoused the notion that this mode of branding is intrinsically corrupt.

Another interesting inter-artistic phenomenon has taken place between Pärt’s music and film. Without him being responsible for the dedicated soundtrack, oftentimes the austerity of his music becomes the perfect foil for harrowing images of human desolation and cruelty, as with Michael Moore’s 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11. The film director acknowledges that Pärt’s music had nothing to do directly with the content of his film. Nonetheless, his choice to use Pärt’s music affords the viewer the ability to view the film, as it offers the balm necessary to endure the viewing, or a subtext of understanding of human frailty and folly in this world. The emotional austerity of the music allows it to be co-opted, legally or illegally, into countless videos and films online and on social media. This case of conceptual blending has now become ubiquitous in film and video culture, also with other composers of a minimalist aesthetic.

By the mid-1980s, Pärt began to be grouped among other composers labeled colloquially as “Holy Minimalists.” This development attests to the growing awareness of his influence on contemporary music culture. The other composers typically named in this group include the Brit John Tavener (1944–2013), and the Pole Henryk Górecki (1933–2010). Neither of them used the tintinnabuli technique, but their mature styles developed out of examinations of austere aspects of sacred music, and their public personas had associations with a religion; John Tavener had converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Górecki was a devout Catholic. They also cultivated musical languages that relied on slow tempi, incantatory repetition, and disciplined musical processes, even though these processes differed substantially from Pärt’s.

They both made a splash in popular culture, respectively with The Song for Athene performed during the funeral of Princess Diana, and the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, that topped the British classical charts and sold more than a million copies. The term “Holy Minimalist” defined the concern with the sacred in all these composers, and separated them from the American Minimalists—Philip Glass (b. 1937), Steve Reich (b. 1936), and Terry Riley (b. 1935)—who came to develop musical processes with minimal materials, out of a study of Eastern music and Buddhism. It also both contrasts and parallels the work of other famous composers in the West who created works before 1970, also imbued with religious fervor but with different, non-minimalistic profiles, including Igor Stravinsky, Francis Poulenc, Maurice Duruflé, and Olivier Messiaen.

The label of “Holy Minimalist” belies an initial derision by critics, academics, and other composers alike, accusing the style of rejecting the heritage of Western music, which is assumed to be narrative, complex, and dialectic. The criticism implies, without stating it, a lack of diligence. Scottish composer James Macmillan (b. 1959), also a devout Catholic with a truly important oeuvre of sacred compositions, critiques Pärt’s stylistic choices (and by extension Tavener’s and Gorecki’s) for their static discourse as a metaphor for eternity. He considers that the Western mind’s need for dialectic argument represents the reality of worldly conflict and violence that can be resolved in the musical discourse.

The eminent theologian of the arts Jeremy Begbie also says: “The music of Pärt offers a cool sonic cathedral in a hot, rushed and overcrowded culture, and this is the reason for its popularity.” He protests that this represents the assumption that the more we reach out to God, the more we separate from the world and its dynamics. “This goes against what Christ actually did, meaning, He engaged with the world to the point of Crucifixion.” Pärt has not addressed directly these objections, but he has been clear about the theology of his music, one of representation of the serenity of God’s countenance, as espoused in Eastern Christianity. All other labels and explanations must contend with this declaration by the composer.  

Time alone will give the measure of Pärt’s revolutionary effect on Western art music after 1968. However, it is now clear that his personal choices, as delineated above, are seeping through the career paths of composers of the following generation. His influence on the culture of contemporary choral music seems certain. A tremendous rise in the composition of new music for chorus has taken place, especially in the ecstatic, serene, and nonnarrative style that generally describes Pärt’s work. Estonian composers and other composers of the Baltic region are expected now to offer new choral repertoire to satisfy a thirst for sacred choral music with Pärt’s stylistic profile.

In many respects, choral ensembles and choral repertoire have become one of the most reliable professional outlets for contemporary art music composers, as an echo of Pärt’s tremendous success with this genre. This reverses the trend of the mid-twentieth century, when popular choral repertoires remained circumscribed to pre-1940 styles, while cutting-edge stylistic debates were relegated to niche professional groups. The artistic merits of the followers of Pärt’s influence remain very variable, perhaps because not all the composers aspire to the strict discipline that Pärt adopts with his own music. Now that Pärt’s success is undeniable, responses to his meditative style prosper both in Europe and North America. Latin America still has to react to his influence.

The reception of Pärt’s music within orchestras is still evolving. The orchestral practice builds around the coalescence of extraordinary virtuosos. The performance of Pärt’s slow lines and transparent atmospheres appears on the surface to neglect the orchestral player’s capacity for extremely complex emotional narratives and high technical achievement. In other words, the challenges of performing a score by Pärt do not show ostensibly to the spectator. Perhaps the self-denying sacredness of the language seems alien to the symphonic concert hall, which emerged in the nineteenth century as Europe celebrated virtuosic individualism in composers and conductors.

Still, in 2009 Pärt premiered his first symphony in forty years, titled Los Angeles, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by their former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. It could be argued that, because Salonen stands as the poster child of conductors and composers trained by the European avant-garde, this commission and première acknowledged that Pärt has joined the list of great composers of the twenty-first century. In a way, Pärt has come full circle.

As Pärt enters the ninth decade of his life, conflicting forces still play in the musical establishments of both Western European and the former Soviet republics. We still find radical avant-garde composers. American minimalism is pervasive everywhere, especially in film music, and these previously rejected minimalist composers from both sides of the Atlantic have met with reluctant recognition in academia. Pärt’s influence did not consist in superimposing his style above all others. In a career spanning fifty years after his crisis and self-transformation in 1968, Pärt has represented an exit from the polarizations in classical music that risked the connection with the audience and their concerns. This exit would be considered an individually chosen seclusion, apart from any discussions of a revolutionary cultural influence, should he have remained unknown and separate from the world.

On the contrary, his success has posed important reevaluations in art music’s professional culture. It proposes provocatively that a composer may be both rigorous and accessible; the path to a new style may lie in early music rather than in constant innovation; your performer can stand as your co-creator and not your servant; there are new artistic pathways embedded in the recording technologies; the career practices of popular music may still hold lessons for the art music composer; and more importantly, that music can be a sacrament, a connection to the divine, not always through narratives of human experience, but as a locus for timelessness and serenity. In so many ways, Pärt’s crisis of 1968 led him on a quest for answers in the deep past of the European musical experience. He succeeded in finding something that he interpreted as sacred and essential, resurrecting it for generations to come. In so doing, he effected an unexpected revolutionary influence on the culture of Western art music.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is excerpted from Global 1968: Cultural Revolutions in Europe and Latin America. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.