Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) composed a setting of the Biblical text known as the Beatitudes in 1990, and it one of his few pieces to date with an English text. From the Latin word for “happy” or “fortunate”, the Beatitudes in English are relatively simple one or two syllable words for the most part – blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… and the economy of the English inspired Pärt to write in an equally spare way. [here is the entire text: Beatitudes, The – Arvo Pärt]. One note per syllable. But there’s more to the music than that of course. His style often includes what has become known as tintinnabula, a bell-like sound that intimates the overtones around a bell’s pitch. In the case of his Beatitudes two parts of the choir move in step-wise motion and two other parts move around those more static pitches in an almost circular fashion, creating halos of sound. Like incense, sound in a resonant space wafts before seeping into the walls and our souls.
Pärt said of his early years: “I was writing music in which there were many notes thrown down on the page…I was not guarding these notes as treasures.” “Every note is decisive, every note is telling,” in says in explanation of his later restrained and simplified musical language. Tintinnabula does allow for dissonance and consonance to exist equally, though, just as bells ringing will create new sounds while the overtones of the earlier sounds are still in the air. The composer himself compared this co-existence of dissonance and consonance to the pulls between sin and redemption, mortality and immortality, humanity and God.
One more compositional tool is worth describing. The Beatitudes moves through nearly all of the major and minor chords available to us and in doing so creates not a disorienting world of sound, as you might suspect, but one that implies the vastness of God. Simple triads, moving through so many different tonal centers seem to reveal the text: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. In an extended postlude to the piece, the organ returns to all of those same harmonies in reverse order, creating a larger circularity beyond the tintinnabula. Alpha and Omega.
Alex Ross, who is the music critic for The New Yorker (and, incidentally, a graduate of neighboring St. Albans School) writes in his typically elegant and insightful way about Arvo Pärt in his blog, The Rest is Noise:
He (Pärt) is a composer who speaks in hauntingly clear, familiar tones, yet he does not duplicate the music of the past. He has put his finger on something that is almost impossible to put into words – something to do with the power of music to obliterate the rigidities of space and time. One after the other, his chords silence the noise of the self, binding the mind to an eternal present.
Ross interviewed Pärt a few years ago, and in trying to reconcile the animated man before him, one who had defied Estonia’s Communist government as a young composer, with the austere, deeply religious music he now writes, Ross muses that “often, in the spiritual sphere, faith hovers at the brink of disorder and sorrow.” Dissonance and consonance.