Arvo Pärt (11 September 1935) is one of those composers whose creative output has significantly changed the way we understand the nature of music. Since 1976, his unique tintinnabuli compositions have established a new musical paradigm and an approach to composing that he is still using today. And, although there is no school that follows him, nor does he teach, a large part of the music of the second half of the 20th century has been strongly influenced by Pärt’s tintinnabuli compositions.
The reception of his music in the Soviet Union at the time was conflicting and complicated. On one side, he was perceived as one of the most original and outstanding composers of his generation, whose works were also performed and acknowledged outside the USSR. On the other, many of his works composed in the 1960s were heavily criticized; for example, the neoclassical “Partita”, but above all the dodecaphonic “Nekrolog”. Although criticized by Tikhon Khrennikov in 1962, for employing serialism in Nekrolog (1960), which exhibited his "susceptibility to foreign influences", nine months later he won First Prize in a competition of 1,200 works, awarded by the all-Union Society of Composers, indicating the inability of the Soviet regime to agree consistently on what was permissible.
Regarding his concert music, in 1968, Pärt gave up all styles, techniques and means of expression used before and withdrew. Nevertheless, as a crisis, it turned out to be one of the most productive in music history, involving a radical change in the author’s style, impossible to predict even for the composer himself. “I didn’t know at the time that was I going to be able to compose at all in the future. Those years of study were no conscious break, but life and death agonising inner conflict. I had lost my inner compass and I didn’t know anymore, what an interval or a key meant,” Pärt recalled many years later. In his new quest for self expression Pärt turned even more intensively towards the early music and became absorbed for years studying Gregorian chant, the Notre Dame School and Renaissance polyphony. The first signs of this appear in his Symphony No. 3 (1971).
After all that intensive research, Pärt emerged in 1976 with a new and highly original musical language, which he called tintinnabuli (from tintinnabulum – Latin for ’little bell’). The new language first appears in a short piece for piano, “Für Alina”, followed soon by masterpieces like “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” (1977), “Fratres” (1977), “Tabula rasa” (1977) and “Spiegel im Spiegel” (1978). Pärt has now been composing in his tintinnabuli-style for almost 40 years, and it has proven to be a rich and inexhaustible creative source.
"Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. . . . The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation." - Pärt on his style.
Tintinnabuli music can be defined as a distinct technique, which in essence unites two monodic lines of structure – melody and triad – into one, inseparable ensemble. It creates an original duality of voices, the course and inner logic of which are defined by strict, even complicated mathematical formulas. Through that duality of voices Pärt has given a new meaning to the horizontal and vertical axis of music, and broadened our perception of tonal and modal music in its widest sense.
Tintinnabuli music can also be described as a style in which the musical material is extremely concentrated, reduced only to the most important, where the simple rhythm and often gradually progressing melodies and triadic tintinnabuli voices are integrated into the complicated art of polyphony, expressing the composer’s special relationship to silence. In addition, tintinnabuli is also an ideology, a very personal and deeply sensed attitude to life for the composer, based on Christian values, religious practice and a quest for truth, beauty and purity.
Estonian Arvo Pärt has been ranked as the world’s most performed living composer for 2015, according to statistics from the classical event database Bachtrack. The report was compiled based on information regarding the most performed composers at musical events around the world, as part of Bachtrack’s annual comprehensive set of classical music statistics. This is the fifth consecutive year that Arvo Pärt has claimed the top spot on the list of most performed contemporary composers. He was followed by US composers John Adams and John Williams.
“Arvo Pärt continues to be the most performed contemporary concert composer, leagues ahead of John Adams and John Williams,” stated Mark Pullinger, classical music and opera editor at Bachtrack.