The last day of Women's History Month - yes, it is Women's History Month, quick, think of and appreciate a famous woman - I have decided to post to very different forms of cultural analysis and protest: eating, and listening.
In a stark, oppressive Communist environment, one man protested with classical music. The story is here:
Composing a Revolution
By Roberto Rivera3/20/2008
The Gospel According to Arvo Pärt
That is my goal: time and timelessness are connected.This instant and eternity are struggling within us.And this is the cause of all our contradictions . . . - Arvo Pärt
I recently watched the new documentary about Estonia’s struggle for freedom from Soviet domination, The Singing Revolution. The title refers to the defining characteristic of this national liberation movement: Instead of throwing rocks or even marching through the streets of Tallinn, Estonia’s freedom “fighters” would gather by the thousands and, well, sing.
Beginning with a June 1988 music festival, the public face of Estonia’s struggle for freedom was thousands of Estonians gathering together and spontaneously breaking into song, specifically patriotic songs. (If the examples in The Singing Revolution are at all representative, Estonians, as a group, are among the world’s best singers.) It was proof that three generations of Soviet schooling had not extinguished Estonian identity and culture.
Watching this inspirational and well-told story, I kept feeling that something was missing: religion. I can’t recall a single mention of religion in the film. Did religion have nothing to do with the Estonian identity and culture the singing revolutionaries sought to preserve?
This absence of religion is made all the more noticeable by the central role of religion—specifically Christianity—in the life and work of the most famous Estonian musician of them all, the composer Arvo Pärt.
Like his compatriots, it was music that got Pärt into trouble with Soviet authorities. His 1968 piece for solo piano, chorus, and orchestra, Credo, opened with the Latin words Credo in Jesum Christum, “I believe in Jesus Christ.”
As Pärt’s biographer, Paul Hillier, wrote, the “strongly personalized religious declaration” of the title and the text (taken from Matthew 5:38-39) was seen as a “gesture of defiance” and a “direct provocation,” especially in 1968, when the Soviets had crushed the “Prague Spring” and the Politburo was headed not by the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev but by Leonid Brezhnev. Not surprisingly, Credo was banned in the Soviet Union for more than a decade.
Credo marked more than a political turning point for Pärt—it marked a creative one, as well. According to Hillier, “with Credo, Pärt had written himself into a cul-de-sac.” Up to that point, his music, including Credo, had been written in thoroughly modern forms such as serialism and collage. He now doubted the idea that there could be “progress in art” analogous to progress in science.
Instead, Pärt looked to “early music”—by which he meant music before Bach—for inspiration. At the same time, Pärt experienced a spiritual awakening in which “the whole direction and meaning of his life found new meaning.” This led him to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church.
The turn to early music and his spiritual awakening are, in Hillier’s words, “inseparably intertwined” and resulted in the emergence of the musical style Pärt is famous for: tintinnabuli.
Tintinnabuli, whose name comes from the Latin word for “bells,” attempts to “[evoke] the pealing of bells, the bells’ complex but rich sonorous mass of overtone” with human voices.
“Complex” but not “complicated.” As Bill McLaughlin of Public Radio’s St. Paul Sunday put it, “What is interesting in Pärt’s music is what is not there. There is little rhythmic complexity, no extravagant use of orchestration, no self-conscious harmonic display or dissonance.”
Instead, there’s a “powerfully affecting” simplicity that both reflects Pärt’s “deep spirituality” and evokes the early music, especially chant, from which the composer draws his inspiration. Not surprisingly, Pärt’s most “powerfully affecting” work is his sacred music for chorus, which has comprised the bulk of his work since faith and early music became inescapably intertwined for the Estonian composer.
Enough of words, it is time to listen to the bells, in this case De Profundis (“Out of the Depths”), Pärt’s setting of Psalm 130.
Now for Holy Week with Arvo Pärt. The first sample comes from his Kanon Pokajanen, a setting of the Orthodox Canon of Repentance. The Kanon is “a song of change and transformation” that “invokes the border between day and night, Old and New Testament, old Adam and new Adam (Christ). Applied to a person, it recalls the border between human and divine, weakness and strength, suffering and salvation, mortality and immortality.”
Ode I of the Kanon Pokajanen
From Orthodoxy and Old Church Slavonic, we move to Catholicism and Latin. Specifically, to Pärt’s setting of John’s Passion narrative, Passio. It’s the one CD I’ve listened to more times than any other, regardless of genre. The only time it left my CD changer, I felt guilty and quickly returned it to its rightful place in slot “1.”
Pärt wrote Passio shortly after emigrating from Estonia to Berlin in 1980. Perhaps more than in any of his other works, Pärt’s simplicity serves the text, John chapters 18 and 19, well. “What is not there,” to use McLaughlin’s expression, draws our attention to, as is Pärt’s intention, to the cosmic centrality of what is being depicted. The music is timeless in the way that an icon is: Both are windows into eternity. At the end you are ready to join Pärt in the Passio’s closing prayer: Qui passus es pro nobis, miserere nobis. Amen. (“You have suffered for us, have mercy on us. Amen”)
Opening of Passio
Pärt once told the BBC that the text is “more important than the music” and that, in writing his music, he tries to “find what is behind every word.” He succeeds in his Berliner Messe (Berlin Mass). You don’t have to understand Latin or know anything about the Canon of the Mass to know (or feel) what is being expressed in the Kyrie. Likewise, the pregnant pause after “passus, et sepúltus est,” (“suffered, died and was buried”) in the Credo (not the same one he wrote back in 1968) lets the hearer know that something big is about to follow: et resurréxit tértia die, secúndum Scriptúras, (“He rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures.”)
Back when there was a Tower Records and they had classical departments that were separate from the rest of the store, I used to frequent the one in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. One Saturday, I selected several CDs of Pärt’s music and took them to the checkout counter, where a young guy with multiple piercings and, as I recall, a heavy-metal t-shirt waited on me. He looked at my selection and said, “Arvo Pärt rules.”
He still does.
Roberto Rivera is a senior writer with BreakPoint and a contributor to The Point.
I encourage you to listen richly to the selections Roberto discusses - they are beautiful, and worshipful. You may find them free online or purchase the album.
Another provocative, unusual call for observation is this book on food and gender: "Cooking Lessons: The Politics of Gender and Food." I found it online while searching for meatloaf recipes, interestingly enough. You can browse it here: http://www.amazon.com/Cooking-Lessons-Politics-Gender-Food/dp/0742515745