Adam Wood: Arvo Pärt on Gregorian Chant

The Chant Café

wood gregorian

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.

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