Estonian composer Arvo Pärt was born on September 11, 1935, meaning that this is the year in which he will celebrate his 80th birthday. Pärt’s personal history as a composer makes for a fascinating object lesson in how music developed during the second half of the twentieth century. After an initial interest in the neo-classical approaches taken by Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, and Béla Bartók, he became drawn to atonality and the techniques Arnold Schoenberg had explored to depart from a tonal center as a reference point. This led to his music being banned by the Soviet censors, to which he reacted by studying the polyphonic techniques that emerged between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The result was a new approach to making music firmly rooted in traditions that reached back half a millennium. Pärt would describe his compositional style as “tintinnabuli,” likening his sonorities to the ringing of bells. This music came to the attention of Gidon Kremer, who, along with such colleagues as Keith Jarrett and Alfred Schnittke, was instrumental (pun intended) in bringing Pärt’s music to wider public attention through the release of the ECM New Series recording Tabula Rasa. (I first encountered this album as a result of Steve Reich talking about Pärt during a workshop I attended, which he conducted at the University of California at Los Angeles.) Since then Pärt’s music has become so entrenched in our social setting that even those who do not recognize his name are probably away of his unique sonorities.
Earlier this month the a cappella ensemble The Tallis Scholars honored this anniversary year for Pärt with their latest album. Entitled Tintinnabuli, it consists entirely of Pärt compositions. The Tallis Scholars originated for the sake of performing those early music sources that so occupied Pärt during his period of transition, and Tintinnabuli is only the second album they have released of contemporary music. For the record, the first album was Ikon of Light, selected compositions by John Tavener, who acknowledged Pärt as a “kindred spirit.” This probably had less to do with style than for their shared interest in austere settings of sacred texts.
Indeed, all of the selections on Tintinnabuli are settings of sacred sources. Most of them are from the Gospels in the New Testament. There are also seven antiphon texts in German and three “odes” in English. No attributions are given for either of these sources in the accompanying booklet. With the exception of the German antiphons, all selections on the album are sung in either Latin or English.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the performances has to do with the “roots” of The Tallis Scholars in the proper intonation of the early music they sing. Their approach to both intervallic relations and the dissonances that can form through those relations is clearly consistent with Pärt’s own thinking about consonance and dissonance. Thus, these performances are valuable for their sonorities, if for no other reason. One consequence, however, may be that texts are not always clearly articulated; and it is not always evident whether the difficulties can be traced back to Pärt or to these performances. As a result, the full impact of this music is best appreciated by those who will take the trouble to follow the texts in the accompanying booklet.
The Tallis Scholars’ celebration of Pärt’s birthday will also include what they are calling “the Tintinnabuli world tour.” This will encompass at least 45 concerts across ten countries in Europe, Asia, and both American continents. The United States portion of that tour will take place throughout next month. It will involve visits to nine cities as follows:
- April 10 and 11, Berkeley, California: First Congregational Church (CalPerformances)
- April 12, Arcata, California: Van Duzer Theatre (CenterArts)
- April 17, New York, New York: Church of St. Ignatius Loyola
- April 18, New York, New York: Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall
- April 21, Birmingham, Alabama: Cathedral Church of the Advent
- April 23, Little Rock, Arkansas: Christ Church
- April 24, Dallas, Texas: Highland Park Presbyterian Church (Highlander Concert Series)
- April 25, Houston, Texas: Christ Church Cathedral
- April 26, Lubbock, Texas: First United Methodist Church