There are two kinds of people: those who haven’t yet heard of Arvo Pärt, and those who are completely taken by his music. One has only to hear his compositions, such as Te Deum, Magnificat, or Cantus, to join the second category.
Born in Estonia in 1935, Arvo Pärt made his mark among Eastern European composers by creating a body of important work in the 1960s, a period which culminated in his political censure and personal despair. It was after a seven-year period of musical silence that Pärt emerged as from a chrysalis into an entirely new mode of musical composition: new, yet palpably drawing on medieval tonalities and primal musical elements.
In this new phase of his work Pärt’s listeners heard something exquisitely pure, uncluttered. “It is a cleansing of all the noise that surrounds us,” observed renowned violinist Gidon Kremer. They heard something unmistakably “spiritual” in this music, whatever they may have meant by that word. His devoted fans continue to include famous rock stars, artists, and film makers who incorporate his pieces into their scores; his work somehow seizes people of all walks of life, of all faiths and of none.
What people hear as “pure” and “beautiful” is not only the work of a gifted composer; it comes from a lifetime’s experience of exile, both political and interior. What people hear as “spiritual” is born out of something very specific: Pärt’s immersion in the Orthodox Christian Church. How does this unique spiritual foundation inform his music?
Pärt has often spoken of his work as the interweaving of two currents: one is suffering, the other consolation. One is sin, the other is forgiveness. One is human, the other is divine. These lines are always discernable, always intertwined in his music. This sounds like heady stuff, yet curiously it is something that many people have sensed intuitively. Björk understood it perfectly, in conversation with Pärt. So did Arthur Lubow, in his profile of Pärt in the New York Times.
Although deeper realities in Pärt’s music are potentially accessible to anyone, their resonance may be the strongest with those familiar with the texts, rites, liturgies, and saints of the Orthodox Christian Church that is Pärt’s spiritual home. Getting at the purest heart of Pärt’s oeuvre entails plumbing the depths of Eastern Christianity. Enter the Arvo Pärt Project. As one of the premier institutions of higher learning in the Orthodox Christian world, St. Vladimir’s Seminary is uniquely positioned to explore these connections. The Seminary is committed to engaging and witnessing to the surrounding culture, and to translating Eastern Christian spirituality in contemporary Western vernacular.
Meetings between seminary faculty and Arvo Pärt and his wife, Nora, (herself an indispensable key to his music) have crystallized this natural connection between Pärt and the Seminary. And so we are entrusted with the work of “translating” Pärt’s inner method to the broader world.
This project holds the potential to open up entirely new depths of experience and understanding of one of the world’s most significant and compelling cultural figures.
Biography of Arvo Pärt available here.