Arvo Pärt on Gregorian Chant

This is a guest post by NLM contributor Dr. Peter Kwasniewski.

My favorite living composer is Arvo Pärt. I have nearly every recording and score of his music, have been blessed to be present at several concerts where the composer was present (including the premiere of In Principio in Graz), and dedicated a set of seven choral compositions to him in honor of his 75th birthday, in thanks for which he telephoned me from Estonia and we spoke in German for about twelve minutes—truly one of the most memorable moments of my life as a musician.

What I find so powerful about his music is that it breathes the spirit of ancient religious chant and yet the overall idiom, particularly the harmonic language, is thoroughly modern. It is obvious that the composer deeply loves and believes in the realities with which he is dealing, and, as a result, treats every word, every phrase, with an intensely sympathetic and sensitive care. This is no less true of his purely instrumental works such as the Fourth Symphony. Often in his orchestral scores one sees a Slavonic liturgical text implanted in the instrumental parts, as if the violins are a choir wordlessly singing to the Lord—a striking re-interpretation of the idea of a “string choir.”

In an interview in 1978, not long after Pärt’s first tintinnabuli pieces, Ivalo Randalu asked him: “Let’s take, for example, ‘Tintinnabuli’. What do you try to discover or find or achieve there? That keynote and the triad; what are you looking for there?” To which Pärt responded:

Infinity and chastity. … I can’t explain, you have to know it, you have to feel it. You have to search for it, you have to discover it. You have to discover everything, not only the way to express it, you have to have the need for it. You have to desire it, you have to desire to be like this. All the rest comes itself. Then you’ll get ears to hear it and eyes to see it.

One could say many things about the special qualities of Pärt’s music, but the purpose of this article is rather to let the composer himself speak about a certain discovery that he considers decisive in his career, his discovery of Gregorian chant, and how that profoundly affected his entire artistic development. It is inspiring to hear this composer, considered one of our greatest living artists, speak about the greatest collection of melodies in the history of music.

In a 1988 interview with Martin Elste, published in Fanfare:

Gregorian chant has taught me what a cosmic secret is hidden in the art of combining two, three notes. That’s something twelve-tone composers have not known at all. The sterile democracy between the notes has killed in us every living feeling.

From a conversation in 1990 with Roman Brotbeck and Roland Wächtner, cited in Arvo Pärt in Conversation :

Gregorian chant was for me the first impulse [toward a new beginning]. It was unadulterated admiration. I had never heard this music before. And when I came across it by chance, I knew: this is what we now need, what I now need.

In December 2000, Jordi Savall had a conversation with Pärt that first appeared in French in 2001. The English translation was printed in Music & Literature in 2012. Here is how the composer describes his transformative encounter with chant:

In the beginning, during my twelve-tone period, I lived truly separated from original sources. And the turn I took, it was a matter of learning how to walk all over again. Undoubtedly, the reason such a metamorphosis takes place in certain people and not in others will forever remain a riddle; all I know is that when I heard Gregorian chant for the first time, I must have been mature enough, in one way or another, to be able to appreciate such musical richness. At that moment I felt at once utterly deprived and rich. Utterly naked, too. I felt like the prodigal son returning to his father’s home. I had nothing, I had accomplished nothing. The methods I had used before had not allowed me to say what I wanted to say with music, yet I did not know any others. At that moment, my previous work seemed like an attempt to carry water in a sieve. I was absolutely certain: everything I had done until then I would never do again. For several years I had made various attempts to compose using collage techniques, mainly with the music of Bach. But all of that was more a sort of compromise than something I carried in my flesh. Then this encounter with Gregorian music… I had to start again from scratch. It took me seven, eight years before I felt the least bit of confidence—a period during which I listened to and studied a lot of early music, of course.

Simply put, at that time [around 1970], I had already distanced myself from all those [political] movements and struggles for freedom. I believe that anyone who wants to change the world must begin not at the other end of the world, but that the starting point must be within him. And this is accomplished millimeter by millimeter.

Ideally I would be able to write a melody with an infinite voice, that carries on forever. Music that would be like speech, like a flood of thought. … In music, one could say that a voice or a melodic line is like a man’s soul. In this sense, polyphony would have more to do with the idea of a crowd. The richness of the music of many voices is, however, the sum of the wealth of each of these melodic lines—as was the case in the polyphony of the great masters of the past.

Lastly, Enzo Restagno held a lengthy conversation with Pärt in July 2003. Here are the pertinent passages from the English translation that appeared in 2012 in the book Arvo Pärt in Conversation :

In order to go on [after a crisis] one has to break through the wall. For me, this happened through the conjunction of several, often accidental, encounters. One of these, which in retrospect turned out to be of great importance, was with a short piece from the Gregorian repertoire that I heard quite by chance for a few seconds in a record shop. In it I discovered a world that I didn’t know, a world without harmony, without metre, without timbre, without instrumentation, without anything. At this moment it became clear to me which direction I had to follow, and a long journey began in my unconscious mind. … It wasn’t until later that I realised one can express more with a single melodic line than with many. At that time, given the condition in which I found myself, I was unable to write a melodic line without numbers; but the numbers of serial music were dead for me as well. With Gregorian chant that was not the case. Its lines had a soul. (18)

At the time [the years just after Credo of 1968] I was convinced that I just could not go on with the compositional means at my disposal. There simply wasn’t enough material to go on with, so I just stopped composing altogether. I wanted to find something that was alive and simple and not destructive. … What I wanted was only a simple musical line that lived and breathed inwardly, like those in the chants of distant epochs, or such as still exist today in folk music: an absolute melody, a naked voice which is the source of everything else. I wanted to learn how to shape a melody, but I had no idea how to do it.

All that I had to go on was a book of Gregorian chant, a Liber Usualis [PDF], that I had received from a church in Tallinn. When I began to sing and to play these melodies I had the feeling that I was being given a blood transfusion. It was terribly strenuous work because it was not simply a matter of absorbing information. I had to be able to understand this music down to its very roots: how it had come into existence, what the people were like who had sung it, what they’d felt during their lives, how they’d written this music down and passed it on through the centuries until it became the source of our own music. … I had succeeded in building a bridge within myself between yesterday and today—a yesterday that was several centuries old—and this encouraged me to go on exploring. During those years I filled thousands of pages with exercises in which I wrote out single voiced melodies. (28–29)

Pärt can help all of us to perceive once more, as with fresh ears, the tremendous, inexhaustible goodness and fertility of Gregorian chant. Although little of his music is based directly on chant motifs (the way that, for example, Bach’s Credo of the Mass in B minor, Liszt’s Totentanz [YouTube], or Durufle’s Requiem [YouTube] are), nearly all of his works—the Passio and the Te Deum immediately come to mind—are permeated with a chantlike feel and spirit.

They share chant’s fluidity of phrasing, where the musical rhythm cleaves to the exigencies of the word; its modal character and subtle emotion, which resists the superficiality of major-happy and minor-sad, tending rather towards a stance of contemplation. Both chant and tintinnabuli seem to be well described by Plato’s definition of time as a “moving image of eternity.”

For Pärt, as his compositions and conversations reveal, music is an elemental mystery that must be approached reverently and silently. Paradoxically, music can spring up only in silence, it originates and resonates only in silence, and the appreciator, no less than the composer, must have a quiet soul. Even when agitated, his soul must, in a deeper way, be still, that is, receptive to the influence of the muses, or grace. Grace accounts for man-made beauty; wherever there is beauty in man’s works, grace is operating. Whether it be supernatural grace or the gift of the powers latent in human nature, God speaks through the arts in their highest manifestations, so much so that the arts may be considered a nest for the Gospels, a translator of the obscure tones of mystery into the bright tones of human feeling and knowing, a fellow laborer of scientia in the work of preaching Christ.

“An interview with Arvo Pärt,” Fanfare 11 (March/April 1988) [Fanfare’s Website]
Arvo Pärt in Conversation (Champaign, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 2012)
Music & Literature 1 (2012)

5 Replies to “Arvo Pärt on Gregorian Chant”

  1. Wow–as an amateur Catholic musician I have never been introduced to Part. He's one of my new favorites! Thanks for the introduction!

  2. A wonderful post: thank you. I was introduced to Pärt's music by a friend who included the Hilliard Ensemble's rendering of his "Miserere" on a mixtape for me (yes, it was that long ago!) It was quite an epiphany for me, and no doubt helped prepare the way for my own discovery of the chant some years afterwards.

  3. I also thought that the CD, "Monastic Song" by Theatre of Voices, was a revelation. Starting with Quis dabit from the Codex Las Huelgas, the listener is transported to another world. Paul Hillier and company are outstanding!

Comments are closed.