Composer Spotlight Lent II: Arvo Pärt

February 18, 2016 Comments Off on Composer Spotlight Lent II: Arvo Pärt

The choral music scheduled at St. Luke’s for the Second Sunday in Lent (February 21st) will be:

  • Plainsong – Reminiscere miserationem (Introit)
  • Arvo Pärt – Missa Syllabica
  • Cristóbal de Morales– Parce mihi
  •  Josquin Desprez – Tu pauperum

While we are focusing on Arvo Pärt, Mr. Shuler also notes about what was chosen:

The two motets, Josquin and Morales, were chosen (in addition to the text) for their similarity in style to the Pärt mass, even though separated by several centuries. They are, in a sense, minimalist in a similar way to Pärt’s music, very objective in musical nature.

– Blog Editor


The music of Estonian-born composer Arvo Pärt is unique in the contemporary music world and has attracted a substantial following in recent years. Pärt’s early music was solidly in the atonal serial idiom. By the early 1970’s he had reached a dead end compositionally. At about this time, he converted to Orthodoxy, and also discovered the power of Gregorian chant and early Renaissance polyphony. His response was to develop a tonal idiom based on a mixture of scales and triads, a style that he calls “tintinnabuli”. Listening to this music is similar to viewing an icon: the music does not “go” anywhere but rather “exists”, emerging out of silence and receding back into silence.

Missa syllabica was composed in 1977. As its name suggests, the work is an entirely syllabic setting of the ordinary of the mass. Virtually every musical detail of the piece is determined by the text, on particular, the length of each phrase. Each voice part consists of a small number of notes, which either outline a triad or move scalewise.

This setting of the Latin Mass is a watershed composition dating from the fertile period just after he had arrived at. The Missa syllabica was his first composition with a text using the tintinnabuli style. The composer wrote: “I wanted to approach the text not so much with my own emotions and own personal understanding, but rather to use it in an objective way so that one might make use of it in a liturgical context. So I encoded every word, ensuring for example that the final syllable of each word corresponded to the tonic.” He added that for him “the text” means taking into account “the number of syllables, commas, full stops, and accents.”

Pari intervallo was originally composed for four wind instruments, though the organ version is the more familiar. The title describes the musical material: a pair of voices moves in strict parallel, with a second pair of voices filling in the music. The piece was composed in 1976 ‘in memoriam’ for a friend who had died.

– David Shuler, Director of Music


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