Music at the edge of silence

A portrait of the composer Arvo Pärt
Arvo Pärt. Photo: Eric Marinitsch. The Arvo Pärt Centre

By Anders Beyer

“I smell tonality!”. The English master violinist Irvine Arditti has made his entry into the concert hall of the Louisiana Museum of Art after a rehearsal of Arvo Pärt’s work Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten. He can smell tonality. Not good. A bad sign.

The year is 1989, the month is May. It is exactly 19 years before the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is awarded the Leónie Sonning Music Prize in Copenhagen. In 1989 Pärt is becoming known in the international musical world. In Denmark he is seen by many as a passing phenomenon. Pärt’s music is a smack in the chops to the established musical world’s partly self-imposed demand for the constant production of new forms and figures in music. At the end of the eighties music was still subject to the Rimbaud-like dogma that it should be absolutely modern, even though the music police and other intermediaries were now going around saying that only the hide­bound modernists were writing music according to that template. Adorno and his followers were still going strong among arbiters of opinion and artists in Denmark, all the way into the nineties.

Viewed in the wider perspective, the twentieth century – with Arnold Schoenberg as the leading light of the avant-garde – continued to empty the concert halls of the world. In the course of just under a century, contemporary music had been painted into a corner, where by and large it no longer meant anything to ordinary people. Arvo Pärt was filling the halls again with his music. Two decades ago that fact alone was enough to cast suspicion on him. The aesthetic know-alls asked: “But is this really contemporary music? It sounds pretty much like old music!” One was faced with something of a dilemma: the music was after all de facto new, as it had been written by a man who was alive and well and still on the earth.

Pärt’s music was tonal (you can hear the melody), it was harmonious (you can hear the chords), it was rhythmically speaking reasonably comprehensible, and it repeated everything ad infinitum. Strictly speaking, the music consisted of rhythmically uncomplicated motifs with a melody line that was often no more than arpeggiated chords or scales. Aesthetically the music had ties as ‘sound’ with early music, with Gregorian chant as an important source of inspiration, and the composer was revitalizing Bach’s idea of writing in honour of God. It could hardly have been worse at the end of the eighties in Denmark.

Misunderstood and suspect

In 1989 we – in this case the young composers’ society DUT (Det Unge Tonekunstnerselskab) – wanted to be the first to present Arvo Pärt fully fledged in Denmark. But not as a perhaps upcoming cult figure; rather as counterpoint to modernism’s front-runners with their rigid constructivism unadulterated by expres­sion and emotion. We wanted to initiate a debate on the new music in a Lilliputian country. Pärt was juxtaposed with a qualified opponent, the composer Brian Ferneyhough, in a festival at the Louisiana Museum which had the aim of drawing a musical portrait of the two artists.

The Englishman Arditti smelled tonality on that Mayday in 1989. If only he had known what would follow. The British gentleman with his licence to perform the most complicated scores in the world was exposed at the Louisiana to the exquisitely simple in this world: in Arvo Pärt’s words: “I have discovered that it is enough to play a single note beautifully”.

“I have discovered that it is enough to play a single note beautifully”

Holy shit! A single note played beautifully, that can’t be enough, can it? If you had asked the several million people who bought Pärt’s music on CD throughout the eighties, the answer would have been be in the affirmative. Yes, one note was enough. First and foremost the German Manfred Eicher and his label ECM, and a number of faithful conductors like Tõnu Kaljuste, Neeme and Paavo Järvi and Paul Hillier succeeded in securing global fame for Pärt.

There were a number of people from ‘the milieu’ at the Louisiana in May 1989. So to speak. The young writers who fill pages about Pärt today were in short supply; they had not been active long enough to have felt the Pärt reception in person in the Danish context. The old hands were not there either; for they were already among the elect, hanging in their own musical festoons.

But there were ears listening for possible sources of inspiration: Per Nørgård was there. He immediately engaged in critical dialogue with the New York Times reviewer Paul Griffiths’ portrait of Ferneyhough, which we printed in the pro­gramme for the concert. On that occasion the present writer was given the first of a long succession of calls to order by the always committed Nørgård, who had been there ten years earlier in September 1979 when the Louisiana presented the exhibition “Outsiders” with the odd-man-out Adolf Wölffli, who took on such crucial importance for Nørgård’s further development as a composer.

As we stood there in the interval outside the concert hall at the Louisiana, several of us fidgeted nervously in the spring sunshine. It just wasn’t quite on to say that Pärt was okay. It was not good form at the tine. Danish composers who composed tonally with beautiful melodies were hung out to dry among colleagues and in the press. They ‘stayed in the warm’, it was said. They were made fun of. Bo Holten was one of them. The order of the day was Fibonacci sequences and ‘retrograde inversion’ as well as crab canons and lobster quadrilles crawling on your elbows.

It was positively high-flown to create a Wunderreihe, as Schoenberg called the formally perfect tone row where everything interlocked – on paper. Everything interlocked for these composers; but it never struck them that these were products of an ivory tower from which no audience was visible. With his music Pärt created a spaciousness and an unprecedented inwardness which of course could only cause friction on Parnassus. There seemed to be something cheesy about it. It was too ‘commercial’ and too ‘naive”. Among other things.

Splendid isolation

Pärt’s success paved the way for a number of other composers with a yen for repetition and tonality. They have collectively been dubbed ‘minimalist’ although they vary greatly in their compositional point of departure. Journalists piled on the epithets words to give the readers and listeners more specificity. If religiosity was the starting point, you were a ‘holy minimalist’ (Pärt, Tavener, Górecki), if it was American-inspired minimalism, it was ‘rhythmic minimalism’ (Andriessen, Reich, Glass). And so on in that vein.

Pärt was misunderstood and attributed with wrong motives. Not everyone knew that the man had been through a classic avant-garde period with great crises from 1968 to 1976, when no works found favour in the artist’s critical ear. Pärt was outwardly silent, but inwardly he composed for dear life during a period when he immersed himself in early music and ended up proclaiming his Christian faith in a cultural sphere which now, even more than before, disdained the composer. Pärt changed the dogma of ‘truth before beauty’ to a dogma that could be called ‘truth as beauty’.

I 1989 we tried to sense and capture the associations and form a picture of Pärt. For some people the picture was meant to go in a drawer with a label on it – where it could be filed in order. The picture had to accord with ‘the history of music’ – that is, it had to be the key to the composer’s historical and contemporary position. But Arvo Pärt teases us. When you find an apt description or some connecting lines to other composers – from the past or living – there is always something that doesn’t fit, something that makes you turn back to the phenomenon Pärt, who was both an outsider in the Estonia of the 1960s and 1970s and in the Vienna and Berlin of the 1980s – and still constitutes a mystery. It is as if the works have a hidden room that contains the innermost secrets of the music. That is partly what makes the oeuvre so attractive; you can go exploring in it, be embraced by it, and constantly find new facets in the musical edifice.

“As with Alfred Schnittke and Gustav Mahler, for Pärt homelessness is a funda­mental premise.”

As with Alfred Schnittke and Gustav Mahler, for Pärt homelessness is a funda­mental premise. The concept of Heimat is central to these composers, and the absence of a homeland creates a distinctive keynote in the music, a kind of weightless melancholy. Perhaps the dead and the living speak to one another through secret labyrinths in the music? The centuries speak to one another – they are kindred spirits in their fin-de-siècle moods.

Pärt’s music and his character provide food for the maintenance of religious mysticism – our spirits are simply ignited by mysticism and secret chambers that are as complicated as an Umberto Eco library. But Pärt sees himself neither as a phenomenon nor as particularly mystical. He gradually stopped giving interviews. The risk of being misunderstood was too great. The composer’s mode of expression is the music, not its theorizing. Nevertheless Pärt sets up strict rules for his art. And in parallel with the international Pärt boom the composer took to the studio, Glenn Gould style; for the Estonian it was Manfred Eicher’s ECM studio and together they recorded a number of authoritative CDs approved by the composer, setting a new standard for how Pärt’s music could and should sound; not unlike Stockhausen’s project of documenting everything on his own label so he could say, “Thus and only thus!”

Pärt wanted to make sure that not too much was said, written and performed that was sheer nonsense. When musicians still say, “I’ve been given the sheet music for the concert. It’s the easiest job of my life”, then they have not understood what it means to perform Pärt. The music is not difficult or complex in the usual sense. Something else is going on. Rather, the contours of a compositional credo are being drawn – a central issue for Arvo Pärt, along the lines of “How can I write notes that do justice to the preceding silence?” 

The long journey

Arvo Pärt was born on 11 September 1935 in Paide – exactly midway between Estonia’s two largest cities, Tallinn and Tartu. He studied composition with Heino Eller at the Conservatory in Tallinn, and from 1958 until 1967 he was active as a musical technician and producer on Estonian radio. Then he worked for thirteen years as an ‘independent’ composer. However, ‘independence’ was not especially conspicuous in the Estonia of the 1970s. Pärt’s ‘avant-gardism’ and not least his strong religiosity naturally created problems.

But the time up to 1968 was also a time of searching, via Neoclassicism to serial technique and collage. The work Credofrom 1968 for piano, mixed choir and orchestra was banned, and a planned concert of the same work in Helsinki in 1980 was stopped by Soviet interference at one day’s notice. In the years from 1969 to 1975 only two works appeared, while the years up to his emigration to the West in 1980 became the prelude to a period of composition in the brand new style that most people know, with a simplified and harmonically clarified technique.

In 1977 and 1978 came some of Pärt’s most acclaimed works: Fratres (in several versions and instrumentations), Tabula Rasa for two violins, string orchestra and prepared piano, and Spiegel im Spiegel for violin and piano. ECM released among other things Fratres with the violinist Gidon Kremer and the pianists Keith Jarrett (!), and Tabula Rasa with Kremer and Tatiana Gridenko as violin soloists, and the composer Alfred Schnittke as piano soloist. The release had a sensational distribu­tion and has become a cult object for collectors.

As Pärt’s fame grew at home and abroad he increasingly became an ‘undesirable’ in his own country. The political climate in the Soviet Union is described by Uffe Ellemann-Jensen in Dansk Musik Tidsskrift: “Many chose to go into exile to escape the oppression. Arvo Pärt did so; for long periods he had imposed silence on himself, because the Soviet cultural commissars did not care for his music. In 1980 he travelled with his family to Vienna, and then to Berlin. But shortly before he chose exile, he composed one of the musical pieces I am most fond of; Spiegel im Spiegel (1978), where the instruments steal into your consciousness.”

In 1980 Pärt, along with his family (wife and two sons) were granted an exit visa to visit his wife’s parents in Israel. That was a dramatic time. Nora and Arvo Pärt sit opposite me in a restaurant in Tallinn and talk about the nerve-racking process. His wife begins: “Arvo wasn’t being provocative. He only did what was normal for him. That didn’t suit the party commissars. It was a problem for Arvo, because he was allowed practically no performances. The final scandal came when we got married and my parents had to move to Israel. According to the Soviet system at the time the only way you could emigrate was with an Israeli visa. Several people had been granted a visa to Israel without being Jewish, and that was a clear sign that they were unwanted in the country.”

Arvo Pärt adds: “That had a frightening effect on us, because Israel was ‘an enemy of the country’. The people who were sent to Israel were thereafter to be seen as traitors.”

Nora Pärt: “From that moment in 1972 when we got married and my parents were deported to Israel, no concert organizers had the courage to give Arvo jobs or performances, as a result of what had happened to my parents. Everyone was in the grip of fear. We has no desire at all to leave. After eight years a party secretary came to use and said: ‘Life is so hard for you: travel to your parents in Israel. We can organize the relevant papers for you’. There was no doubt: they wanted rid of us. We had no choice. It wasn’t our decision. It was November 1979, and in January 1980 we left. The papers came quickly; normally it takes several years.”

Arvo Pärt interrupts: “But we didn’t travel to Israel, we got off in Vienna. According to our papers the destination was Israel, but an employee of my publisher Universal Edition in Vienna had found out we were on our way. At seven o’ clock on 20th January 1980 the employee stood in the railway station in Vienna and heaved us out of the train: “We’ll get you Austrian citizenship – are you ready to work with us?”. It was a vacuum in our lives; we were half-stateless. The next day you could read in the newspapers that in my former country I was a traitor.” 

The composer continues: “For people like use there was normally no place in the West, and we could only make a living as street musicians. All our acquaintances in Estonia had read the false propaganda, and they were shocked by the many lies they told about us. That was the worst thing: that the Soviet propaganda apparatus had brainwashed all these people. They were really experts, and they rewrote history to suit them. That means that one generation knows that it’s lies, but not the next one.”

Nora Pärt finishes the story of their experiences with the long journey: “People in the West have no idea how good these party people were at manipulating facts. You had to read between the lines; it became a life-threatening illness. When you are in the middle of it your instinct tells you what to do. Then when you are out of danger you hardly understand what has happened, and in a way you can’t put yourself in that place. This is our dramatic history.”

© Anders Beyer 2020

The portrait was published in Norwegian in Ballade.no.