Entertainment Music

Sunday 4 December 2016

Ring the bells for the master of silence

Published 11/09/2010 | 05:00

Arvo Pärt, who celebrates his 75th birthday today, is one of the most famous and indeed most important contemporary composers. He was born in Estonia less than five years before the Soviet takeover of the country, so his musical education was subject to the rigours of that regime.

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Although there was a central view of what was musically acceptable in the communist state, there was a parallel thoroughness about the system that Pärt himself has acknowledged. This undoubtedly stood to him.

His studies were interrupted by national service; he was a drummer in the army band. He enrolled at the Tallinn conservatory and took on work as a sound engineer with the state radio service.

Pärt was published for the first time in his early 20s. There was a piece called Our Garden, a cantata for children's choir and orchestra, which won the Young Composers' Prize in Moscow, and there were film scores.

But there was also less conventional music, experiments with shape and form, which brought him into conflict with the authorities. In 1968, his Credo, a work for piano, chorus, and orchestra, was banned. This statement by a deeply religious composer was a step too far for the secular Soviet state.

Pärt withdrew from the front line, and threw himself into the study of early music. There was a brief reappearance with his third symphony before he emerged with a whole new style.

"Tintinnabulation", he called it, from the Latin word for a bell. Minimalism would be another way of putting it. Each note to be savoured for itself. Each silence between the notes of equal value.

A piano piece For Alina was the first manifestation of this. Then followed Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror, or Mirrors in Mirrors -- the title, in German, is ambiguous, implying an infinity of visual possibilities).

This composition, originally for violin and piano, is probably the one would most associate with Pärt. It's deceptive in its simplicity. The piano gently sketches three-note patterns like the tinkling of a bell, while the violin traces a melody line within the strict confines of a seven-note scale.

Arvo Pärt left Estonia in 1980 and eventually settled in Berlin, where he still lives. Much of his later work has drawn inspiration from religious texts. He visited Dublin to great acclaim two years ago in conjunction with the RTÉ Living Music Festival, and his works are regularly performed here. Arvo Pärt: A Portrait (Naxos 8.558182-83), complete with a critical appreciation, is a wonderful introduction to the music of this great contemporary artist.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning. ghamilton@independent.ie

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