Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer who works mostly in the sacred minimalist style. He began attending an Estonian music conservatory at the age of 18, but after a year he left for military service. He returned to the school and graduated in 1963. While there he wrote mostly music for film, stage, and other instrumental music. He also began to write vocal works, which would become the genre for which he is most well-known today, especially in America.
Many of his early, more experimental works were criticized by the Soviet government, although in 1962 he was awarded First Place in a large competition held by the same government. In the 1970’s in addition to studying music of the renaissance periods and before, he converted from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodox. This would dramatically effect his musical language forevermore.
His style is typically minimalist in approach, and he has been, since his conversion in the 70’s, primarily composing in the sacred orthodox style. Along with John Tavener and Henryk Górecki, he has been called a ‘holy minimalist.’ This title stems from the mystical and ethereal quality of his sacred vocal works. One of the most important aspect of his style is his self-created technique called tintinnabuli. This compositional technique takes two main ideas and places them in various voices of the work. The two ideas are 1) the three note tonic triad and 2) the stepwise motion of the diatonic scale.
The Berliner Messe was composed in 1990 for four soloists and organ, and later revised for chorus and string orchestra. It is comprised of the five traditional mass movements, plus First Alleluia, Second Alleluia, and Veni Sancte Spiritus. These movements allow the work to be used for either the Christmas or Easter seasons.
The tintinnabuli method is displayed clearly in the Kyrie, Gloria, and Alleluias of the Berliner Mass: the sopranos and tenors sing only notes of a triad chord, and so their lines move only by leaps. The altos and tenors start each phrase on a note not in the triad, and their lines move only stepwise. There is only one word per measure, with a constantly-changing meter. After the chorus sings each line of the text, there is a punctuating “period” from the orchestra.
The Credo is composed in harmony that could almost be by some other 20th-century choral composer—but still in an unhurried, one-word-per-measure declamation, ending with a uniquely consonant “Amen.” The Sanctus returns to the tintinnabuli style, and the Agnus Dei brings still another formula, with mostly-stepwise lines repeated by widely-leaping echoes from other voices until the steps are abandoned altogether and all voices conclude with intervals of perfect fourths and perfect fifths.
The Berliner Messe is comparable to many other of Pärt’s vocal works. The Missa Sillabica is another work that employs the tinntinabuli technique. However, this work precedes the Berliner Messe by 13 years. Missa Sillabica, named so because the entire work is in syllabic style, features other building techniques such as pedal points and divisi within the vocal lines. The tintinnabuli used in the Berlin Mass feels more grounded in a mature style. The ethereal nature of the work supersedes that of the Missa Sillabica.
I choose this piece for personal reasons. I have performed this work twice. It creates such a peaceful and serene quality for the audience and the performers. The tinntinabuli style involves simple vocal lines, but the overall texture is entrancing. The use of this technique does not feel musical as such, but feels like a spiritual technique by Pärt.
Geoff Smith. An Interview with Arvo Pärt: Sources of Invention. The Musical Times. Vol. 140, No. 1868 (Autumn, 1999). p. 19-25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1004490 .
Paul D. Hillier. "Pärt, Arvo." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed May 3, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/20964.