Arvo Pärt with his Soviet-era composition instructor, Heino Eller (around 1960). Photo from the International Arvo Part Center.
There can be few composers whose musical origins and influences are as diverse as those of the Estonian Arvo Pärt. The composer began his career as a drummer in the Soviet military, before discovering the great Russian masters Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and then later embarking on experiments in serialism. But none of that left a long-lasting influence on his music.
Instead, as he entered his maturity as a composer, Pärt began to find inspiration in more obscure, more distant musical traditions – in Gregorian chant, medieval and Renaissance composers, the ancient Dutch school and Josquin, and in music deriving from religious exaltation.
Pärt’s Fratres is not so much a composition as a musical franchise, a catch-all title that has been applied to a work originally composed in 1977 for string quintet, wind quintet and percussion but that has subsequently been re-composed for various ensembles.
The Lost Paradise - Arvo Pärt, Robert Wilson - offers rare and personal insights into the worlds of two of the most fascinating personalities in the international arts and music scene.
Essentially, the main thematic material of Fratres is a hymn played over a drone, growing ever richer in texture and developing into a state of profound peace and beauty. It has both the character of an internal meditation yet at the same time, almost miraculously, it possesses an innate popular appeal. An explanation for the apparent contradiction may lie in Pärt’s early career, where for a decade or more he worked as a sound engineer for Estonian Radio, a role which saw him not only exposed to the widest possible variety of musical genres, but which keenly attuned his ears to the nuances of music as ‘sound’. His development of a musical style now known as tintinnabuli, in which melodies move step by step over an arpeggio, as if in imitation of ringing bells, typifies the way in which his music combines expressiveness with a glistening surface.
Not that you hear it so prominently in the violin and piano version of Fratres, although it’s undoubtedly there. Rather, the work emerges as a series of variations separated by contemplative interludes. But always there is a sense of the silence that attends upon the dying of a note. As Pärt himself has said, ‘My music was always written after I had long been silent in the most literal sense of the word. When I speak of silence, I mean the “nothingness” out of which God created the world. That is why, ideally, musical silence is sacred.’ And perhaps it’s that connection with, and striving toward pure silence that has made Pärt such a cult figure, and Fratres such a deeply communicative work, in our ever so-noisy, frantic and obsessively-material modern world.
Sydney and Canberra
BEETHOVEN Violin Sonata No.5, Spring
SCULTHORPE Irkanda 1
BRAHMS Sonata No.3 in D minor
Richard Tognetti Violin
Polina Leschenko Piano