Arvo Pärt | Biography

Biography

Arvo Pärt’s later works have an uncluttered simplicity about them, a refreshing directness that has made him a modern audience favourite. Behind this music’s centred emotional strength, though, lies a fraught personal and political history. Pärt was raised by his mother and stepfather in Rakvere in northern Estonia. Initially his local music school sustained his talent, and the family’s battered piano with its damaged middle register induced him to experiment with its top and bottom notes. The USSR first invaded Estonia when Pärt was five and re-annexed the Baltic states towards the end of World War Two. The spectre of Socialist Realism overshadowed both his studies at the conservatoire in Tallinn and his early career. Modern musical ideas were denounced as middle-class indulgence, while at the same time the regulatory All-Union Congress of Composers (AUCC) kept the goalposts mobile, ensuring that ideological conflicts between composers and the state were routine. Pärt’s second wife, Nora, was Jewish. The couple and their two sons applied to leave the Soviet Union for Israel and were granted exit visas in 1980. Rather than settling in Israel, though, they stayed for a time in Vienna before moving to Berlin. Pärt eventually returned to Estonia to live in Tallinn some 20 years after first leaving his homeland. As a student Pärt produced music for film and the stage, as well as completing several concert works for solo piano and his first vocal composition, the cantata Meie aed (‘Our Garden’), for children’s choir and orchestra, during the 1950s. By the end of that decade his exposure to serialism – the all-pervasive 12-note system devised by Schoenberg in the early 1920s and propounded by Boulez as the only way forward for new music – resulted in his first published orchestral work, Nekrolog. Its premiere took place in Moscow in 1961, but the results were too bourgeois for Tikhon Khrennikov, the ultra-conservative composer and AUCC figurehead, who denounced it. Other works followed, including Perpetuum mobile (1963), which added a powerful emotional dimension to 12-note technique, and three of the four symphonies (1964, 1966 and 1971). But the overtly devotional Credo (1968), an experiment with musical ‘collage’ techniques, caused significant ructions with the authorities. Quoting from the supposedly decadent Bach, then adding atonality, unconventional vocal techniques and a religious message, Pärt was flying in the face of Soviet thinking. Credo was banned from performance. After a lengthy near-hiatus that coincided with his conversion to Russian Orthodoxy, Pärt reinvented his style. He dispensed with serialism and collage and developed an approach which he named ‘tintinnabuli’, based on the triad, the simple three-note chord structure that he associated with bells. His interest in early chant and sacred choral works of the Medieval and Renaissance eras fed into this style as well. The euphony that results has become immensely popular. Above all, though, it shows the composer affirming the courage of his unique convictions.