Gramophone guest blog

Tintinnabuli – Arvo Pärt's unique sound world

Peter PhillipsTue 24th February 2015

The Director of The Tallis Scholars on what makes Pärt's music so special

It might seem that to programme a succession of pieces of sacred music for unaccompanied choir will cause little difficulty. Where is any conflict likely to be? They will all have a similar ultimate message, and a similar sound world. 

As someone who for many years only ever programmed Renaissance sacred music, I didn’t have many problems to face: I could put Gesualdo next to Palestrina and cause no offence. And when the opportunity came along to sing music which was written for The Tallis Scholars – often by John Tavener, but also by composers such as John Woolrich and Gabriel Jackson – I found no incongruity in putting these new pieces alongside the Renaissance ones, and I still don’t. We regularly present a Tavener and Taverner mix – we did so in Moscow last September, and shall do so again in the Bridgewater Hall next January. 

But there is another layer of understanding, available in the sacred compositions of Arvo Pärt, which simply provides a new dimension. This is not in fact restricted to his a cappella writing: his Passio, for example, which includes instruments and organ, offers exactly the same emotional experience as his a cappella writing. So it is something more than just the sound world of voices which conveys this extra dimension. 

Pärt is clearly a devout believer, but that doesn’t in itself distinguish him from Tavener, or indeed Taverner and all the Renaissance masters. What makes him unusual is his ability to express his belief in a musical technique which is both completely individual and modern, and yet in step with music of a previous period. This technique he came to call tintinnabuli (after tintinnabulum, the Latin for bell), which he identified in 1976 as a way out of the writer’s block he had been experiencing since 1968.

The music Pärt wrote before 1968 would not fit so well in a Tallis Scholars programme, but the intellectual process he went through in the following years changed everything. He began to take an interest in what constituted the daily lives of religious people in the past, and especially the sounds which surrounded them. He identified these as being the singing of the offices and the ringing of bells. To access the first he began to compose increasingly for choral voices, sometimes a cappella; and for the second he invented tintinnabuli, to recapture the aural effect which comes from striking a bell. Anyone who has done this knows that what you hear is a fundamental note almost immediately followed by a chord cluster of harmonics, which is by definition diatonic – bells do not deal in chromaticisms. Much of the music on our new Pärt disc identifies a fundamental note, proceeds to the triads associated with that note, and thence to the harmonics which spin off it. The opening of the famous Magnificat is a perfect example.

How does this so closely resemble the music of the great polyphonists? The answer is contained in the similarities of the musical languages: a diatonic idiom with a slow harmonic turnover, no modulation, much use of the triad, an uncluttered background to the writing which emphasises its stillness, and a deep respect for silence. The differences in style between Pärt and the Renaissance masters – which miraculously don’t seem to disrupt the sense of common ground – are Pärt’s lack of interest in counterpoint, and the chord clusters which derive from tintinnabuli. Pärt’s melodies tend to come one at a time, unwinding slowly: his is not a teaming web of melodies, as was commonplace with the best polyphonists. Nor did Palestrina and the others have access to the kind of dissonance which at times so delights Pärt. This is diatonic dissonance of course, but taken to an extreme bells can yield an astonishing number of notes at once if struck hard enough. Pärt remembers this for example in the final section of The Woman with the Alabaster Box.

With no other contemporary composer, however religious, do audiences leave our concerts and remark on how all the music they have heard seems to occupy the same other-worldly space. The reaction is often that it acts on them like a drug, and they wish it wouldn’t stop. I am sure it is more than the fact that we sing all of it with only two voices to a part, and so transfer the intimate sound world of polyphony to Pärt’s writing. It is more simply than the musical techniques identified here. Pärt’s study of tintinnabuli admitted him to the world of the monastery, and he has had the genius to put that world into music.

'Tintinnabuli' is released in the UK on March 2, you can read the Gramophone review of this album in the March issue and in the Gramophone Reviews Database.

To watch a video of Peter Phillips introducing the album visit: Inside Arvo Pärt's Music

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