Arvo Part, 82 Years Old Today

I’m not big on this whole wishing famous people a happy birthday thing, but Arvo Part’s birthday is a good enough excuse to reflect on why his music is so loved, and why I so love it. Robert Reilly, whose book I recently blogged about, has elsewhere written this about Part:

His work emerges from deep spiritual discipline and experience, and demands (and gives) as much in return. One will not be washed away in sonorous wafts of highly emotional music – there is no effortless epiphany here. Pärt is the most formally austere of the three [composers Reilly discusses], but is also the one with the most ontological sense – he presents a note as if it were being heard for the first time … Pärt’s music comes out of the fullness of silence. “How can one fill the time with notes worthy of the preceding silence?” he asks. During a rehearsal of his composition The Beatitudes, Pärt told the conductor, “The silence must be longer. This music is about the silence. The sounds are there to surround the silence.” The puzzled conductor asked Pärt, “Exactly how many beats? What do you do during the silence?” Pärt responded, “You don’t do anything. You wait. God does it.”

Earlier in the piece, Reilly makes the interesting point that Tavener, Gorecki and Part ‘have found the sonata principle of development that has driven music since the 18th century, and which gives music so much of its sense of forward motion, extraneous for their purpose.’ This is why Arvo Part’s music so often gets labelled as ‘relaxing’. The music hovers rather than flies. It is about sustained focus on a point rather than a journey. In his ‘dramatic’ works — the John Passion, the Stabat Mater — the music doesn’t progress with the narrative. It would be fair, instead, to call his music meditative. (Though I have not closely followed the text, his newer work, Adam’s Lament, admittedly sounds more dramatic.)

I love Part’s music for a simple and incontrovertible reason: it’s so very beautiful. Even when I was young and disdained all classical music, I surreptitiously kept a CD titled ‘The Very Best of Arvo Part’. No music was more mesmerising — indeed, there was none I treated with more reverence — than Tabula Rasa. One can see why the piece has been such ‘a vehicle of solace’, as Alex Ross has written. ‘Angel music’ is how one dying AIDS patient described the second movement, ‘Silentium’. Listen:

People want beauty. Arvo Part’s music, unlike most contemporary classical music, has found its way into the hearts of so many people. (For instance, listen to this episode of the BBC radio programme Soul Music.) In some quarters his music seems to be treated with suspicion for this reason. I certainly used to feel, in a typically middle-class way, suspicious of myself for liking it. And how foolish I was. As Jay Nordlinger wrote a while back:

Arvo Pärt is a figure to be reckoned with, the genuine article. Someone once said to me, “Who’s a good composer today, and don’t say Arvo Pärt!” I think my questioner meant that too many say Pärt. Well, I do too.


2 thoughts on “Arvo Part, 82 Years Old Today

  1. A fine post! that Pärt ‘speaks’ even to those without faith is a sure sign of the beauty of his music, I think. Have never seen the libretto to Adam’s Lament but I figure the eponymous song or poem by St Silouan is close enough, in sense anyway; it has grown on me over the past year, which of course really means my ears have opened up.


    1. It appears I don’t have a booklet to check — or rather Naxos Music Library doesn’t. Reading the St Silouan text now, I am similarly struck my the beauty of it despite my agnosticism. ‘He sorrowed less after paradise and the beauty thereof; for he sorrowed that he was bereft of the love of God, which insatiably, at every instant, draws the soul to Him.’ Of course you doubtless know it well, but it seems quite strange and amazing to me.


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