Arvo Part, for a man apart

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (above) expressed his grief at the death of the composer Benjamin Britten in 1976, with a piece of music that is quite unlike anything else in his oeuvre. (Photo: Kaupo Kikkas/ECM Records)

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (above) expressed his grief at the death of the composer Benjamin Britten in 1976, with a piece of music that is quite unlike anything else in his oeuvre. (Photo: Kaupo Kikkas/ECM Records)

When I was young I loved a boy; he loved Jesus more, and left. There followed a brief period of mawkish abstraction and counterfactuals, then life resumed. The only physical remnant of our time together is a mixed audio tape, which, among others, contains a recording of the most beautiful piece of music in the world.

The first time I heard it was in his room. It was winter and he was watching me eat the bean soup he had cooked. He rarely had the student house to himself (I only ever visited him there twice), and on this Sunday he was keen for me to listen to something he had recently discovered in the university’s music library.

Holding the bowl with both my hands, for warmth, I watched him fuss with the music system. Before he pressed play he sat down on the floor next to the speaker and turned his face towards me, so that he could gauge my reaction. And then it began.

First: silence.

The piece has begun, but for some seconds one hears only the absence of sound. This is significant, and it is written into the score. Then a bell is struck. It is struck again, and then once more, and now the string instruments join and the sound unfolds. It proceeds from a single note, a single point, and as white light contains all colours, this first note initially contains all notes, but disintegrates mathematically and methodically, edging lower, lower, until all possible sounds are heard.

There are music theory words for what the composer does here; one’s initial response is purely aesthetic, elemental and profoundly affective. It happens at a level outside of language or typology: when the dentist drills into a nerve, the brain does not at first classify the sensation as “pain”; when one walks into the ocean and that first icy wave hits warm skin, one does not process the sensation as “cold”. There is no time for interpretation or reflection. Instead, the first sensation is surprise.

Benjamin Britten. (Denis DeMarney)

The brain needs order; it searches for a melody, a rhythm. This music offers neither. Instead of something predictable – a safe, comfortable template (verse, chorus; verse, chorus; modulation; chorus) – that first note tumbles down, down, in slowly repeating waves. The bell remains present, persisting in languid, relentless groupings of three, providing a counterbalance to the downward tumble. This is achingly beautiful, and very, very sad.

The absence of tune and rhythm means that the listener is unable to hum along; no rhythmic sway is possible; afterwards there will be no earworm. One has to experience this in a new way. The composer is doing something extraordinary here, on discrete tonal levels: the different string instruments play the same downward tumble, but on different levels and at different speeds. The result is not chaos; it bespeaks grief. Pure emotion, expressed scientifically. This mathematics bores into the heart rather than the head, although it is a creature of the head.

Near the end, there is a chord that is splayed and played for well over one minute, as the tonal lines work their way back to a single note. And then, at the very end and in the very final instant, the bell is struck one last time; when the instruments cease playing, the bell’s reverberation is the final punctuation. Silence returns, written into the score again, and it is over.

I hesitate here. Overexplaining this music – intellectualising it with anecdotes about the composer’s life, or providing a theoretically precise account of his technique – may ­render it mundane, quotidian, and spuriously knowable.

Arvo Pärt, an Estonian composer, celebrates his 80th birthday on September 11. Artistically circumscribed during the Cold War, he left his homeland and settled in Germany, but he now resides in both Berlin and Tallinn. In the 1970s he devised his own minimalist compositional technique, which he calls “tintinnabuli” (an onomatopoeia referencing the ringing of bells).

The most beautiful piece of music in the world is titled Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, and it is quite unique in Pärt’s oeuvre. The composer is deeply religious and owes much of his style to the music of the sacred Christian tradition, but Cantus is a wholly secular work, written as an expression of grief after Britten’s death in December 1976.

I find much – maybe even most – of Pärt’s work impossible to listen to. I favour his orchestral compositions over his choral works, although much is sublime in both. My admiration of Cantus has much to do with how it entered my life, and all that this evokes. I am aware that my response to this piece is driven by sentiment, memory and context. But perhaps this is not problematic.

If you have never listened to Cantus, or if you have heard it but not paid attention, then I envy you: you only get one opportunity to pay attention for a first time. I suggest that you find a recording that is between seven and eight minutes long (versions range from around five-and-a-half minutes to over nine minutes), keep distractions at bay, and use headphones.

Maybe this is what art should do: remind us of our truer selves; reflect authenticity instead of artifice; surprise us with a strange echo from deep within.

For me, Arvo Pärt and Cantus have provided such an accompaniment to my life: a place and emotion I can return to again and again; a constant certitude; a line of beauty.

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