Arvo Pärt is one of the most fascinating composers of sacred music living today — and one of my favorites. He was born in Estonia in 1935, attended the Tallinn Conservatory and had early works performed both in the Soviet Union and in the West. But in 1980 he and his family emigrated because of his struggles with Communist officialdom. A follower of the Russian Orthodox faith, some of Pärt's early music was banned in the former Soviet Union because of its explicit religious content. He has lived in West Berlin since 1981.
A recent budget recording serves as a good introduction to Pärt's music, especially during this season. You can spend less than $10 to listen to his Passio (St. John Passion), performed by the British ensemble Tonus Peregrinus (Naxos, 2003; www.naxos.com). Written in 1984, Passio is one of the compositions that raised Pärt's profile significantly.
Two distinctive traits of Pärt's music are radical simplicity and dramatic use of silence. He strips sound down to its bare essentials: few notes punctuated by frequent silences. He reduces sound to its starkest to focus intensely on the message. In both style and text, he has been heavily influenced by plainchant.
The drama of some sacred music is its complex, rich, powerful character, but just the opposite is true with Pärt's music: It's almost otherworldly in its spareness. He employs dissonance in an extremely careful way. His goal is not to overwhelm but to alternate moments of tension with those of resolution.
This music requires conscious, careful listening. You can't just have it on in the background — you'll miss too much.
Pärt has an extensive discography, so here are just a few other choices I especially recommend. These are available in various combinations on a number of recordings: his Berliner Messe (Berlin Mass), Miserere, Magnificat, Sarah Was Ninety Years Old, The Beatitudes and Seven Magnificat-Antiphons.
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