In Praise of Arvo Part (i)
Born in Estonia in 1935, Part is one of those composers who took a while to find his voice. Of his early pieces, the most enjoyable is Solfeggio (1964), in which unaccompanied voices overlay each other. Doubtless being in the USSR imposed constraints on him, as it did on other composers, although while living in an oppressive environment most have consequences for creative work it is not easy to see just what they are. Part’s big breakthrough came when he adopted the style of tintinnabulation, based on triads, that can suggest bells. A piece for piano, Fur Alina (1976; is the title meant to suggest Fur Elise?) usually takes about two minutes in performance. It is extraordinarily pared back, the score containing no time signature, there being no variation in volume, and the two hands always playing notes simultaneously. Yet it holds one’s total attention There are a number of performances on YouTube, including a master class with a very interesting commentary given by the composer himself. Less characteristic of his work is another piece of this period, the lush Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, in which a real bell tolls; it is a wonderful act of homage to the composer who reinvigorated English music.
More ambitious is Fratres, the first version of which was published in 1977, although there have been many reworkings. The CD on which I’ve been listening to it (Naxos) has two of these, and while that for strings and percussion isn’t terribly effective the one for cello and piano is superb; the low, rumbling notes of the piano seem to be trying to soothe the nervous edginess of the cello, and it occurs to me that the mysterious title of the work may allude to brotherly relations between the instruments executing the two lines of music.
All these are among Part’s early pieces, written while he was still living in the Soviet Union. Later he went on to compose works on a grander scale for which he is better known. But his breathtaking simplicity and integrity have always been there. The feeling he gives of reaching towards the absolute moves me as that of no other living composer does.