Estonian born composer, sometimes tagged minimalist, although he's also definitely been a modernist, a master of musical collage, and a dabbler in dodecaphonic music and other 20th century musical fads. Most of all, though, Arvo Pärt has developed a unique voice, making him one of our greatest contemporary composers.
Pärt was born 1935 in Paide, Estonia, and grew up in Tallinn. There he worked directing and composing music for TV and film, and studied composition under Heino Eller. His early work (late 1950s) was (to my mind) unexceptional Shostakovich-like Russian neoclassic.
In 1960, with his Necrolog, Pärt began experimenting with Schoenberg's dodecaphonic music, and serialism. One of his more expressive pieces in this (brief) period of strict "mathematical" formalism was Perpetuum Mobile.
In the mid-60s, Pärt gave up some of the excessive formalism, while still holding on to many of his favourite structures. Moving beyond the modernism of his first symphonies, Collage sur BACH (1964) is a short post-modernist collage of styles and voices, structured Bach-like around highly formal variations on a simple theme. The instrumentation and much of the theme are true Baroque, as is the tongue-in-cheek Toccata-Sarabande-Ricercar structure, but the rest is atonal and heavy with pretty scary chords. The four-note cluster rather vainly immortalised by Bach (notes which he would have read as B-A-C-H) repeats throughout the piece, in wildly differing roles (as a chord, as a melody, in reverse, etc). Once the concept of melody is decentralised, there are many new ways to disguise and repeat a basic theme. Pärt revealed himself as everything (or at least something) J.S. Bach would have been, if he were an atonal minimalist.
Later work (from the 1970s on) developed some medieval (especially Gregorian chant) influences, the multi-style collage (with references to other composers, or even entire excerpts from Bach, Tchaikovsky, and others), and eventually what he calls "tintinnabulation" (literally, ringing of bells). This was a watershed in Pärt's style. Two 1977 pieces are prime examples, in particular of this last technique: Fratres and the ingenious and moving Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (song in memory of Benjamin Britten). "Cantus" arises from silence by notes seemingly assembled out of thin air, gradually coming together. The entire piece is held together, from this start, by a bell-like ringing of a single chord (apparently this must always be a tonic triad). This is tinitinnabulation. Typically, one or two instruments or voices ring out this constant reminder, and the rest of the ensemble is free to spin wildly around this focus, or pursue its own independent theme (in "Cantus", the other parts seemingly ignore the tintinnabuli, intent on an inexorable descent in pitch). Incidentally, in the same year, he also composed his longest piece Tabula Rasa, a very modern concerto grosso for string orchestra, two violins, and prepared piano.
In Festina Lente (1988), Arvo Pärt achieved, to my mind, his (near) perfect style. As always, the melody appears gradually, unfelt, from long, disparate sonorous notes. Then, following Emperor Augustus's advice from the short work's title ("make haste slowly"), the melody is played out concurrently in fast tempo by the violins and slowly by the basses, with the violas keeping an intermediary pace. Again, at the core, a very neo-Baroque abstract construction.
Since the early 1990s, Pärt has become the constant source of a steady stream of frequently religiously-inspired, majestic, and often sorrowful pieces, uniquely identified by the ubiquitous mainstay of tintinnabulation (Summa, Miserere, Magnificat, another "BACH" piece). These seem to be striving for one perfect voice, discarding whatever does not or cannot serve that purpose; in Pärt's own words (re tintinnabulation): "The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity."
I have yet to node any of the specific pieces above. Excuse the broken links.
Some web resources:
- http://www.arvopart.org/ contains a very complete discography, and an interesting-looking thesis on Pärt's style (I have not yet read it to any depth)
The best CD to introduce yourself to (post-1977) Pärt is probably BIS CD-834 (titled "Summa") with the Tapiola Sinfonietta. It contains several of the pieces mentioned above.