Arvo Pärt

"Pärt" redirects here. For the Estonian music producer, see Michael Pärt.

Arvo Pärt (Estonian pronunciation: [ˈɑrvo ˈpært]; born 11 September 1935) is an Estonian composer of classical and religious music.[1] Since the late 1970s, Pärt has worked in a minimalist style that employs his self-invented compositional technique, tintinnabuli. His music is in part inspired by Gregorian chant. His major works include the violin concerto Tabula Rasa (1977), Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1977), Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen (1988) and The Beatitudes (1991). Pärt has been the most performed living composer in the world for 5 consecutive years.[2]


Pärt was born in Paide, Järva County, Estonia and was raised by his mother and stepfather in Rakvere in northern Estonia. He began to experiment with the top and bottom notes of the family's piano as the middle register was damaged.[3] Pärt's musical education began at age seven. He began attending music school in Rakvere, where his family lived. By the time he reached his early teenage years, Pärt was writing his own compositions. His first serious study came in 1954 at the Tallinn Music Middle School, but less than a year later he temporarily abandoned it to fulfill military service, playing oboe and percussion in the army band. After his service he attended the Tallinn Conservatory, where he studied composition with Heino Eller and it was said of him,[4] "he just seemed to shake his sleeves and the notes would fall out".[5] As a student, he produced music for film and the stage. During the 1950s, he also completed his first vocal composition, the cantata Meie aed ('Our Garden') for children's choir and orchestra. He graduated in 1963. From 1957 to 1967, he worked as a sound producer for Estonian radio.

Although criticized by Tikhon Khrennikov in 1962, for employing serialism in Nekrolog (1960), which exhibited his "susceptibility to foreign influences", nine months later he won First Prize in a competition of 1,200 works, awarded by the all-Union Society of Composers, indicating the inability of the Soviet regime to agree consistently on what was permissible.[6] In the 1970s, Pärt studied medieval and Renaissance music instead of focusing on his own composition. About this same time, he converted from Lutheranism to the Russian Orthodox faith.[7]

In 1980, after a prolonged struggle with Soviet officials, he was allowed to emigrate with his wife and their two sons. He lived first in Vienna, where he took Austrian citizenship and then relocated to Berlin, Germany, in 1981. He returned to Estonia around the turn of the 21st century and now lives alternately in Berlin[8] and Tallinn.[4] He speaks fluent German and has German citizenship as a result of living in Germany since 1981.[9][10][11]

Musical development

Familiar works by Pärt are Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten for string orchestra and bell (1977) and the string quintet "Fratres I" (1977, revised 1983), which he transcribed for string orchestra and percussion, the solo violin "Fratres II" and the cello ensemble "Fratres III" (both 1980).

Pärt is often identified with the school of minimalism and, more specifically, that of mystic minimalism or holy minimalism.[12] He is considered a pioneer of the latter style, along with contemporaries Henryk Górecki and John Tavener.[13] Although his fame initially rested on instrumental works such as Tabula Rasa and Spiegel im Spiegel, his choral works have also come to be widely appreciated.

In this period of Estonian history, Pärt was unable to encounter many musical influences from outside the Soviet Union except for a few illegal tapes and scores. Although Estonia had been an independent Baltic state at the time of Pärt's birth, the Soviet Union occupied it in 1940 as a result of the Soviet-Nazi Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact; and the country would then remain under Soviet domination—except for the three-year period of German wartime occupation—for the next 51 years.


Arvo Pärt in 2011

Pärt's works are generally divided into two periods. He composed his early works using a range of neo-classical styles influenced by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bartók. He then began to compose using Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique and serialism. This, however, not only earned the ire of the Soviet establishment, but also proved to be a creative dead-end. When early works were banned by Soviet censors, Pärt entered the first of several periods of contemplative silence, during which he studied choral music from the 14th to 16th centuries.[4] In this context, Pärt's biographer, Paul Hillier, observed that "He had reached a position of complete despair in which the composition of music appeared to be the most futile of gestures, and he lacked the musical faith and willpower to write even a single note."[14]

The spirit of early European polyphony informed the composition of Pärt's transitional Third Symphony (1971); thereafter he immersed himself in early music, reinvestigating the roots of Western music. He studied plainsong, Gregorian chant and the emergence of polyphony in the European Renaissance.

The music that began to emerge after this period was radically different. This period of new compositions included the 1977 works Fratres, Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten and Tabula Rasa.[4] Pärt describes the music of this period as tintinnabuli—like the ringing of bells. Spiegel im Spiegel (1978) is a well-known example which has been used in many films. The music is characterised by simple harmonies, often single unadorned notes, or triads, which form the basis of Western harmony. These are reminiscent of ringing bells. Tintinnabuli works are rhythmically simple and do not change tempo. Another characteristic of Pärt's later works is that they are frequently settings for sacred texts, although he mostly chooses Latin or the Church Slavonic language used in Orthodox liturgy instead of his native Estonian language. Large-scale works inspired by religious texts include St. John Passion, Te Deum, and Litany. Choral works from this period include Magnificat and The Beatitudes.[4]

Of Pärt's popularity, Steve Reich has written: "Even in Estonia, Arvo was getting the same feeling that we were all getting ... I love his music, and I love the fact that he is such a brave, talented man ... He's completely out of step with the zeitgeist and yet he's enormously popular, which is so inspiring. His music fulfills a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion."[15] Pärt's music came to public attention in the West largely thanks to Manfred Eicher who recorded several of Pärt's compositions for ECM Records starting in 1984.

Invited by Walter Fink, Pärt was the 15th composer featured in the annual Komponistenporträt of the Rheingau Musik Festival in 2005 in four concerts. Chamber music included Für Alina for piano, played by himself, Spiegel im Spiegel and Psalom for string quartet. The chamber orchestra of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra played his Trisagion, Fratres and Cantus along with works of J.S. Bach. The Windsbach Boys Choir and soloists Sibylla Rubens, Ingeborg Danz, Markus Schäfer and Klaus Mertens performed Magnificat and Collage über B-A-C-H together with two cantatas of Bach and one of Mendelssohn. The Hilliard Ensemble, organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, the Rostock Motet Choir and the Hilliard instrumental ensemble, conducted by Markus Johannes Langer, performed a program of Pärt's organ music and works for voices (some a cappella), including Pari Intervallo, De profundis, and Miserere.

A new composition, Für Lennart, written for the memory of the Estonian President, Lennart Meri, was played at Meri's funeral service on 2 April 2006.

In response to the murder of the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow on 7 October 2006, Pärt declared that all of his works performed in 2006 and 2007 would be in honour of her death, issuing the following statement: "Anna Politkovskaya staked her entire talent, energy and—in the end—even her life on saving people who had become victims of the abuses prevailing in Russia."[16]

Arvo Pärt and Nora Pärt in 2012

Pärt was honoured as the featured composer of the 2008 RTÉ Living Music Festival[17] in Dublin, Ireland. He was also commissioned by Louth Contemporary Music Society[18] to compose a new choral work based on "St. Patrick's Breastplate", which premiered in 2008 in Louth, Ireland. The new work is called The Deers Cry. This is his first Irish commission, having its debut in Drogheda and Dundalk in February 2008.

Pärt's 2008 4th symphony is named Los Angeles and was dedicated to Mikhail Khodorkovsky. It was Pärt's first symphony written since his 3rd symphony written in 1971. It premiered in Los Angeles, California, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on 10 January 2009,[19] and has been nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Classical Contemporary Composition.

On 10 December 2011, Pärt was appointed a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture for a five-year renewable term by Pope Benedict XVI.[20]

On 26 January 2014, Tõnu Kaljuste, conducting the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, the Sinfonietta Riga, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, the Latvian Radio Choir and the Vox Clamantis ensemble, won a Grammy for Best Choral Performance for a performance of Pärt's Adam's Lament.[21]



International centre

The International Arvo Pärt Centre is located in the Estonian village of Laulasmaa. The centre includes a research institute, an education and music centre, a museum, a publishing facility, and an archive of Pärt's works.[33]


  1. "Answers - The Most Trusted Place for Answering Life's Questions". Retrieved 6 September 2016.
  2. "Estonian Arvo Pärt listed as most performed living composer - News". Retrieved 6 September 2016.
  3. Arvo Pärt, Sinfini Music website
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 New York City Ballet program notes in Playbill, January 2008.
  5. P. Hillier, Arvo Pärt, 1997, p. 27.
  6. Misiunas, Romuald J., Rein Taagepera (1983). Khrennikov Arvo Pärt&pg=PA170#v=onepage&q=Tikhon Khrennikov Arvo Pärt&f=false The Baltic States, Years of Dependence, 1940–1980, University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-04625-0
  7. Peter Quinn. Arvo Pärt,, the official website of BBC Music Magazine
  8. "Radio :: SWR2 -" (PDF). Retrieved 25 September 2014.
  9. P. Hillier, Arvo Pärt, 1997, p. 33.
  10. "Arvo Pärt Special 1: How Sacred Music Scooped an Interview". Retrieved 25 September 2014.
  11. P. Bohlman, The Music of European Nationalism: Cultural Identity and Modern History, p. 75.
  12. For example, in an essay by Christopher Norris called "Post-modernism: a guide for the perplexed," found in Gary K. Browning, Abigail Halcli, Frank Webster, Understanding Contemporary Society: Theories of the Present, 2000.
  13. Thomas, Adrian. Górecki. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 135. ISBN 0-19-816393-2
  14. P. Hillier, Arvo Pärt, 1997, p. 64.
  15. Hodgkinson, Will. "The Reich stuff". The Guardian, 2 January 2004. Retrieved, 18 February 2011.
  16. "Arvo Pärt commemorates Politkovskaja" (PDF). Universal Edition Newsletter. Universal Edition (Winter 2006/2007): 13. 2007. Retrieved 19 February 2011.
  17. RTÉ website
  18. "Louth Contemporary Music Society". Retrieved 6 September 2016.
  19. In Detail: Arvo Pärt's Symphony No. 4 'Los Angeles'. Retrieved: 27 January 2009.
  21. Arvo Pärt’s “Adam’s Lament” wins Grammy Award in the Best Choral Performance category! Retrieved: 26 January 2014.
  22. "Honorary Awards: University of Sydney". Archived from the original on 4 December 2008. Retrieved 12 January 2009.
  23. "Arvo Pärt: Doctor of Music" (PDF). 15 October 2003. Retrieved 31 May 2008.
  24. "President Arnold Rüütel jagab heldelt üliharuldast ordenit". Postimees. 12 January 2006. Retrieved 25 September 2014.
  25. "". 9 May 2008. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
  26. "Honorary Degrees June 2009". 17 June 2009. Archived from the original on 24 June 2009. Retrieved 18 June 2009.
  27. "Le compositeur Arvo Pärt décoré de l'ordre de la Légion d'Honneur". Retrieved 3 November 2011.
  28. "Vatican information service". 12 December 2011. Retrieved 12 December 2011.
  29. "Arvo Pärt Receives Distinction from Patriarch Bartholomew". 2013-09-09. Retrieved 2013-09-09.
  30. "Arvo Pärt, Athol Fugard among recipients of Praemium Imperiale awards". Los Angeles Times. 2014-07-16. Retrieved 2013-07-18.
  31. "Honorary Degrees May 2014" (PDF). 31 May 2014. Archived from the original on 6 June 2014. Retrieved 7 August 2014.
  32. "Oxford announces honorary degrees for 2016". 25 February 2016. Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  33. "Arvo Pärt Center". Retrieved 25 September 2014.


Further reading

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