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Arvo Part (b 1935)


Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten for string orchestra and one bell

The wide appreciation of the music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is one the most positive aspects of contemporary music. Now aged 70, he began composing in the 1950s, when Estonia still part of the USSR . His early music was typical of the era, based on Schonberg's 12-tone method, and is now rarely played - indeed much of it he has disowned. In the early 1970s he became dissatisfied with his music, and stopped composing for several years. As a result of his researches into Gregorian chant and medieval music, his growing sense of the spiritual, and a fascination with the sound of bells, he devised a completely new style which he called tintinnabuli. “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of the triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”

The basis of the style is a two-part voice. The “melodic” part moves step-wise, usually toward or away from a home note, and often in a repeating but varied pattern. The second part is the “tintinnabuli” part which picks out only notes of the triad, closest (either above or below) to the melodic part. The composer explains that the two parts constitute one voice, a twofold single entity, which he once expressed by the equation 1 + 1 = 1.

Having devised this method, from 1976 to 1978 Pärt produced a flood of compositions, which includes those most often played today. He wrote Cantus in 1977, having just discovered and learnt to deeply appreciate Britten's music. Pärt wanted to meet Britten, but the older composer died in 1976, and Pärt wrote this moving elegy instead.

Cantus starts and ends in silence, which is gently broken by a bell, struck softly three times. Then the first violins enter as quietly as possible at the top of their register, with a pattern of descending notes, each repetition descending one note more than the previous one. Then the second violins enter with the same pattern, an octave lower and at half the speed. The pattern continues down through the orchestra, until the basses enter 4 octaves below (and 16 times slower). Each line has its own tintinnabuli part around it - except the violas, who should therefore be slightly more prominent. As the music descends, it also grows louder. Eventually the strings cut off abruptly, leaving the resonance of a quietly struck bell to take the music back to silence.

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