Arvo Pärt (born September 11, 1935) is an Estonian composer of orchestral, chamber, and sacred music, born in Paide, Järva County, Estonia, and raised by his mother and stepfather at Rakvere in northern Estonia. Pärt’s musical education began at age seven while attending music school in Rakvere and taking piano studies with Ille Martin. He started to experiment with the top and bottom notes as the family’s piano’s middle register was damaged. His first serious study came in 1954 at the Tallinn Music Middle School, but less than a year later he temporarily abandoned it to fulfill military service, playing oboe and percussion in the army band. By the time he reached his early teenage years, Pärt was writing his own compositions. While at the Tallinn Conservatory, he studied composition with Heino Eller. As a student, he produced music for film and the stage. During the 1950s, he also completed his first vocal composition, the cantata Meie aed (‘Our Garden’) for children’s choir and orchestra. He graduated in 1963. From 1957 to 1967, he worked as a sound producer for Estonian radio.
Although criticized for employing serialism in Nekrolog (1960) because of his “susceptibility to foreign influences”, nine months later Part won First Prize for the oratorio Maailma samm (Stride of the World), in a competition of 1,200 works, awarded by the all-Union Society of Composers, indicating the inability of the Soviet regime to agree consistently on what was permissible. In the 1970s, he studied medieval and Renaissance music rather than to focus on his own music. About this same time, he converted from Lutheranism to the Russian Orthodox faith. Pärt’s works are generally divided into two periods. He composed his earliest works using a range of neo-classical styles influenced by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bartók. He then began to compose using Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and serialism. The forbidding Symphony No. 1 (Polyphonic) of 1963 was dedicated to Professor Eller and is notable for a relatively clear twelve-tone structure, integral serialism and excursions into sonorism.
This, however, not only earned the ire of the Soviet establishment, but also proved to be a creative dead-end. After composing the Credo of 1968, when his early works were banned by Soviet censors, Pärt entered the first of several periods of contemplative silence, during which he studied choral music from the 14th to 16th centuries including plainsong, Gregorian chant, and the emergence of polyphony in the European Renaissance. The spirit of early European polyphony informed the composition of Pärt’s transitional Third Symphony (1971) which differs significantly from any previous work; thereafter he immersed himself in early music, reinvestigating the roots of Western music. However, Pärt was not yet prepared to abandon his search for his true compositional voice. In 1972, he composed a symphonic cantata, Lied an die Geliebte, and then entered again into a period of silence.
Pärt re-emerged four years later, having found the voice for which he had been searching. The first composition in Pärt’s new style was the piano piece Für Alina. It is a composition of widely spaced pitches, open intervals and pedal tones. The music that began to emerge after this period was radically different. Pärt moved to a new phase of experimenting with collage technique and is often identified with the school of minimalism and, more specifically, that of mystic minimalism or holy minimalism, of which he is considered a pioneer, along with contemporaries Henryk Górecki and John Tavener. Familiar works of this period by Pärt are Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten for string orchestra and bell (1977) and the string quintet “Fratres I” (1977, revised 1983), which he transcribed for string orchestra and percussion. Spiegel im Spiegel (1978) is a well-known example which has been used in many films.
Pärt describes the music of this period as tintinnabuli—like the ringing of bells. The music is characterized by simple harmonies, often single unadorned notes, or triads, which form the basis of Western harmony. The solo violin “Fratres II” and the cello ensemble “Fratres III” both come from 1980. Another characteristic of Pärt’s later works is that they are frequently settings for sacred texts, although he mostly chooses Latin or the Church Slavonic language used in Orthodox liturgy instead of his native Estonian language. Large-scale works inspired by religious texts include St. John Passion, Te Deum, and Litany. Choral works from this period include Magnificat and The Beatitudes.
In 1980, after a prolonged struggle with Soviet officials, Part was allowed to emigrate with his wife and their two sons. He lived first in Vienna, where he took Austrian citizenship and then relocated to Berlin, Germany, in 1981. He returned to Estonia around the turn of the 21st century and now lives alternately in Berlin and Tallinn. He speaks fluent German and has German citizenship as a result of living in Germany since 1981. Pärt’s music came to public attention in the West largely thanks to Manfred Eicher who recorded several of Pärt’s compositions for ECM Records starting in 1984. Invited by Walter Fink, Pärt was the 15th composer featured in the annual Komponistenporträt of the Rheingau Musik Festival in 2005 in four concerts. A new composition, Für Lennart, written for the memory of the Estonian President, Lennart Meri, was played at Meri’s funeral service on April 2, 2006. Pärt was honored as the featured composer of the 2008 RTÉ Living Music Festival in Dublin, Ireland. He was also commissioned by Louth Contemporary Music Society to compose a new choral work based on “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”, which premiered in 2008 in Louth, Ireland. The new work is called The Deer’s Cry and had its debut in Drogheda and Dundalk in February 2008.
Pärt’s 2008 Symphony No. 4 is named “Los Angeles” and was dedicated to Mikhail Khodorkovsky. It was Pärt’s first symphony written since his Symphony No. 3 written in 1971. It premiered in Los Angeles, California, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on January 10, 2009, and has been nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. On December 10, 2011, Pärt was appointed a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture for a five-year renewable term by Pope Benedict XVI. As of 2013, Pärt has been the most performed contemporary composer in the world for three years in a row. On January 26, 2014, Pärt’s Adam’s Lament won a Grammy for Best Choral Performance. Although his fame initially rested on instrumental works such as Tabula Rasa and Spiegel im Spiegel, his choral works have also come to be widely appreciated.
My collection includes the following works by Arvo Part:
Collage uber B.A.C.H. (1964).
Summa for Strings.
Symphony No. 3 (1971).
Tabula Rasa, double concerto for two violins, string orchestra, and prepared piano (1977).
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources