Connecting The Dots On Arvo Pärt's Symphonic Journey

Apr 20, 2018
Originally published on April 20, 2018 2:55 pm

Arvo Pärt is one of the most popular, most performed living composers. He's beloved worldwide for his signature sound – a spacious, meditative music that tends to sound timeless.

But there's a lesser-known side to the 82-year-old Estonian's career. It's a story that can be traced in a new recording of Pärt's four Symphonies. The album is a musical journey spanning 45 years in fervently detailed performances by the NFM Wrocław Philharmonic, conducted by fellow Estonian Tõnu Kaljuste.

For those who are used to Pärt's bittersweet, reflective style, music from early in his career may come as a shock.

His Symphony No. 1, from 1963, is subtitled "Polyphonic," a cheeky nod to old traditions. But the music is perfectly modern, an example of what composers in the 1960s were expected to write: astringent, tonally challenging music.

That sound still lingers in Part's compact Second Symphony from 1966. At just eleven minutes long, the music is stuffed with bold and restless gestures, but it ends with a sweet surprise. Dropping from a very stormy sky, clarinets whisk in a heavenly melody. It's actually a quote from a Tchaikovsky's piano cycle Album for the Young and perhaps a veiled message to Soviet authorities, who officially condemned some of Arvo Pärt's early pieces.

After the Second Symphony, in 1968, Pärt called it quits. He went almost completely silent as a composer for nearly eight years. When he reemerged, he launched one of the most radical reboots in music history. His new softer, slower, style – the one so admired today – is called "tintinnabuli," a Latin word meaning little bells.

But Pärt did write one significant piece during his black out period – the Symphony No. 3. In it, you can hear the composer turn his back on the trendy, atonal sound. The music is a bridge between the old Pärt and the new, growing ever more spacious. The Third Symphony anticipates his breakthrough sound and, as Pärt told NPR in 2014, his preoccupation with silence.

"On the one hand," Pärt said, "silence is like fertile soil, which awaits our creative act – our seed. But on the other hand, silence must be approached with a feeling of awe."

It's hard not to be awed by Pärt's tranquil, tintinnabuli style – and with the symphony he came up with next, his Fourth subtitled "Los Angeles."

Named more with angels in mind than the city where it premiered in 2009, the symphony is scored for strings, harp, timpani and percussion and unfolds in long, flowing breaths. It's a world away from the congested first Symphony.

Pärt sees each of his symphonies as separate destinations. But this compelling album helps connect the dots, offering a road map through a singular composer's circuitous journey.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Arvo Part is one of the most performed living classical composers known for his spacious and meditative sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF ARVO PART'S "SUMMA FOR STRING ORCHESTRA")

SHAPIRO: You can hear how the Estonian composer arrived at this signature sound in a new collection of his symphonies. NPR's Tom Huizenga has been listening.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: For those who are used to Part's calm, reflective style, music from early in his career may come as a shock.

(SOUNDBITE OF NFM WROCLAW PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF ARVO PART'S "SYMPHONY NO. 1")

HUIZENGA: That's Arvo Part's "Symphony No. 1" from 1963, and it kicks off a fascinating album of Part's four symphonies. It's a musical journey that spans 45 years. These performances conducted by Tonu Kaljuste are fervently detailed. Part, now 82, subtitled this symphony "Polyphonic," a nod to old traditions. But the music is perfectly modern, an example of what composers in the 1960s were expected to write - astringent and tonally challenging. You can still hear it in Part's second symphony.

(SOUNDBITE OF NFM WROCLAW PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF ARVO PART'S "SYMPHONY NO. 2")

HUIZENGA: The second symphony from 1966 is compact, just 11 minutes long, and it's stuffed with bold and restless gestures. But it ends with a sweet surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF NFM WROCLAW PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF ARVO PART'S "SYMPHONY NO. 1")

HUIZENGA: That heavenly music dropping out of a very stormy sky is actually a quote from Tchaikovsky and perhaps a veiled message to the Soviet authorities who condemned some of Arvo Part's early pieces. After he wrote his second symphony, Part called it quits in 1968 and went almost completely silent. When he re-emerged eight years later, he launched one of the most radical reboots in music history with a completely new style.

The only major piece Part wrote during this blackout period was the third symphony. You can hear the composer turning his back on the trendy atonal sound. The music turns out to be a bridge between the old Part and the new.

(SOUNDBITE OF NFM WROCLAW PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF ARVO PART'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3")

HUIZENGA: In the third symphony, Part's music becomes spacious, anticipating his breakthrough sound and, as he told me in 2014, his preoccupation with silence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ARVO PART: On the one hand, silence is like fertile soil which awaits our creative act, our seed. On the other hand, silence must be approached with a feeling of awe.

HUIZENGA: It's hard not to be awed by Part's new style and the symphony he came up with next, his fourth, subtitled "Los Angeles," named more with angels in mind than the city where it premiered in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF NFM WROCLAW PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF ARVO PART'S "SYMPHONY NO. 4")

HUIZENGA: Part's fourth symphony unfolds in long, flowing breaths. It's a world away from his congested first symphony. Although Part sees each of his symphonies as separate destinations, this compelling collection helps connect the dots, offering a roadmap through a singular composer's circuitous journey.

SHAPIRO: The album is "Arvo Part: The Symphonies." Our reviewer is NPR's Tom Huizenga.

(SOUNDBITE OF NFM WROCLAW PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF ARVO PART'S "SYMPHONY NO. 4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.