The Contemporary Sublime: Arvo Pärt & Eric Whitacre
By Thomas May
That frisson moment: it might be the dimming of the lights preceding the curtain’s ascent, the split second of blankness before a film’s establishing shot, the conscious focus on the upbeat of silence that ushers in a musical performance. Few contemporary composers have mastered the secret of this moment — the limitless mystery it contains — as effectively as Arvo Pärt. “Silence is like fertile soil,” Pärt has said, “which, as it were, awaits our creative act, our seed.”
Perhaps it is this mindfulness, which can seem so desperately needed in our era of overstimulation and noise pollution, that accounts for some of the composer’s extraordinarily enthusiastic reception beyond the confines of the “new music” world.
Eric Whitacre has similarly tapped into an aesthetic hunger that has earned him a passionate international following. Separated from his older colleague not just by almost two generations but by a vastly different background and outlook as well, Whitacre nevertheless resembles Pärt in his gift for writing choral music that appeals to a remarkable diversity of listeners — and that achieves originality without handicapping the immediacy of that appeal. Pärt has revitalized some of the ethos that was long attributed to sacred choral music as a vehicle for spiritual contemplation, while Whitacre has parlayed his fluency with social media to bring awareness of the beauty of choral music to countless young people around the globe.
“The common ground between these two composers is their extraordinary ear for choral textures,” observes LA Master Chorale artistic director Grant Gershon. “Pärt and Whitacre both love clear, focused, resonant singing, and take great delight in exploring the kaleidoscope of possibilities when voices interweave in close harmony. It’s interesting that two composers who are outwardly so different in aesthetic have each contributed so much to the phenomenal resurgence of popularity for choral music in our time.” Gershon adds that the unusual juxtaposition order for our final program of the season mimics the synergy of counterpoint: “Of course I’m always a fan of yin/yang programming, and this is a great case in point.”
Arvo Pärt’s Radical New-Old Style
This year the music world is celebrating a milestone anniversary for Arvo Pärt, who was born 80 years ago, on September 11, in the small Estonian town of Paide. Although he gravitated toward music quite early (at the age of seven), Pärt points out that in fact he “matured very late, and that back then I wasn’t in a position to find the path that might have led me toward what I was really looking for.” (Many of the Pärt quotations here are taken from Arvo Pärt in Conversation, which includes a lengthy interview conducted by Enzo Restagno in 2003 — published in English by Dalkey Archive Press in 2012.)
His musical education at the Tallinn Conservatory gave him a bit more freedom than would have been the case in Moscow, but Pärt was still subject to the pressures and whims of Soviet cultural policy. During the first part of his career behind the Iron Curtain, he had to make ends meet working as a radio engineer and writing film scores.
While still a student Pärt wrote his first orchestral work, which was also the first piece in post-war Estonia to employ the twelve-tone method, deemed “decadent” by the Party’s Composers Union. He did win official approval for a few choral pieces but then generated a major scandal among the bureaucrats in 1968 with his choral-orchestral work Credo. An example of his experimentation with a “collage” style, Credo reconfigured the past (here, the Prelude in C major from Book One of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier) in juxtaposition with aggressively modernist techniques. It also proclaimed the text “I believe in Jesus Christ” — another sin in addition to the aesthetic ones as far as Soviet officialdom was concerned.
In fact, the provocative proclamation of Credo turned out to mark a turning point of uncertainty. Abandoning the avant-garde modernism that had reached a crisis in Credo, for nearly eight years the composer fell mostly silent (apart from his searching Third Symphony). He retreated into a period of intense reflection and pursued a newfound interest in early music of the West, all the way back to Gregorian chant, as he painstakingly reinvented for himself the essentials needed to compose — not unlike a stroke survivor relearning speech. “I wanted to learn how to shape a melody, but I had no idea how to do it,” says Pärt. “All that I had to go on was a book of Gregorian chant, a Liber Usualis… When I began to sing and to play these melodies I had the feeling that I was being given a blood transfusion.”
What Pärt was engaged in was a radical rethink of the very essence of music and, with it, of spirituality. The result was his invention of a new technique and style he termed “tintinnabuli” (Latin for “little bells”). It embraces an entire system and even a philosophy and theology, embodying Pärt’s quest for the one behind the many.
Tintinnabuli revolves around Pärt’s radical reduction of counterpoint to the basic ingredients of the triad and the scale. Through stepwise patterns that are formulated by a variety of rules, a melody voice is created. This is interwoven with another voice built around the triad. The image of “little bells” contained in Pärt’s self-designated name refers to the “ringing” he associates with the sounding of this triadic voice. It’s important to understand that this is not mere “accompaniment.” Pärt formulates the synergy of these voices as the equation “1 + 1 = 1.” Over the years, he has continued to evolve variations on the process, extending its reach and harmonic language, but the essential system remains intact, whether used for instrumental or vocal composition. Pärt was already gaining international recognition and hence increasingly became a thorn in the side of the regime, which encouraged him to leave Estonia in 1980 with his family; they ended up in Berlin after a transitional stay in Vienna. The composer started returning to his homeland after the demise of the Soviet empire and now divides his time between Tallinn and Berlin. Our program samples shorter choral pieces by Pärt written over a period of three or so decades from the time of his stylistic breakthrough.
Pärt’s enormous success has predictably been scorned by detractors. Back in Soviet days, the naysayers accused him of “decadent” individualism, while, as soon as Pärt was resettled in the West, the know-it-alls pegged him as a reactionary simpleton, mistaking his surface simplicities for New Age coddling. Even more positively disposed commentators conferred the misleading label “holy Minimalism” on his work.
Especially during those early years in the foreign culture of the capitalist West, it was tempting to build a tidy narrative of an austere, monk-like artist who promised a “mystical” escape from worldly turmoil. “By spirituality I do not mean something mystic, but something in fact quite concrete,” Pärt points out. “There are different attitudes — a very negative way of thinking, and another attitude that sees everything in a positive light. Old music and art teach us to see things from the second of these two perspectives.”
The “Relevant, Honest and Pure” Eric Whitacre
In a parallel way, Eric Whitacre has had to face some backlash for his rapid ascendancy to international success — though his critics often point to external factors that have nothing to do with the music itself: whether his expertise in crowdsourcing (for his “virtual choirs” project on YouTube), his shrewd command of social media (192,000 Facebook followers and counting) and networking in general, or even his stints as a model signed to London’s Storm Agency. (A longtime resident of Los Angeles, Whitacre has since relocated with his family to London’s Chelsea neighborhood.)
Born in Reno, Nevada, in 1970, Whitacre was a notably late convert to classical music in general, his interests lying in pop music. In fact, it wasn’t until his college years (at the University of Nevada) that he experienced an epiphany of his own while singing in a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. Once he decided to focus on composition, he was fortunate in finding inspiring mentors (including John Corigliano at Juilliard, where he met his wife, the soprano Hila Plitmann). With an unlikely velocity, Whitacre emerged as a popular new voice in the realm of contemporary choral music (he is also well represented in the area of band music) and now ranks among the most-performed composers of his generation.
While Pärt wasn’t much younger than Whitacre is now when he finally arrived at his tintinnabuli style, Whitacre quickly homed in on his sense of artistic mission. You might call it an attempt to inspire the contemporary sublime, to create music that is “relevant, and honest, and pure,” as Whitacre has described it.
Another fascinating comparison between the two composers involves their approach to text setting. Whitacre even shares with his Estonian peer a fondness for the marmoreal “objectivity” of Latin words, as we hear in two of our selections. They represent his ongoing collaborations with his poet and friend Charles Anthony Silvestri (a fellow Nevadan), who has developed a unique niche for supplying “bespoke poetry for choral composers, especially texts in Latin.” The Master Chorale’s March program (Songs of Ascent) included one of their best-known collaborations, the neo-Elizabethan Her Sacred Spirit Soars.
Following are brief comments on each of the pieces in our program:
Veni Creator for four voices and organ, composed in 2006 for the German Bishops’ Conference. Arvo Pärt here sets just two stanzas from the famous early-medieval Catholic hymn invoking the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. (Gustav Mahler gives the complete hymn a complex polyphonic treatment as the first movement of his Eighth Symphony.) The first and last sections mingle all the voices (using a tintinnabuli gesture around the triad of G major), while Pärt separates the women’s and men’s voices in the center.
Water Night for mixed chorus composed in September 1995. One of Whitacre’s most popular pieces, this is a setting of a text by the Mexican poet-diplomat Octavio Paz (1914-1998). Whitacre composed this as a tribute to one of his mentors, the choral conductor Bruce Mayhall, who was instrumental in convincing him as a student to complete his degree and continue his pursuit of composition. Whitacre notes that he’s usually a slow composer, but in this case, “the music sounded in the air as I read the poem, as if it were a part of the poetry. I just started taking dictation as fast as I could, and the thing was basically finished in about 45 minutes.”
Cantate Domino for mixed chorus and organ, originally composed in 1977, revised in 1996. This setting of Psalm 95 is a good example of Pärt’s intricate structuring within a brief compositional span. He divides the Psalm’s lines into four groups (3 lines each), establishing a vocal pattern of a single vocal part (line 1), a pair (line 2), all four parts (line 3), with all four voices also joining together for line 13. This is simply one level of a complex of formulas by which Pärt sets the text in his tintinnabuli style, yet the rational control — reminiscent, in its way, of serialist discipline, paradoxically enables the impression of a fresh, “new song” praising the divinity.
Lux Aurumque for mixed a cappella chorus, composed in 2000 on a commission from the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay. A shimmering example of Whitacre’s trademark close-knit harmonies, this also represents one of his “contemporary Latin” settings: here, of Charles Anthony Silvestri’s Latin translation of a poem in English by the (otherwise obscure) Edward Esch, which attracted Whitacre for its “genuine, elegant simplicity.” Lux Aurumque was the piece Whitacre chose for his first Virtual Choir made from YouTube clips gathered from followers around the globe. It also appears on the Grammy-winning Light & Gold CD released in 2012 by the Eric Whitacre Singers (modeled on such pathbreaking groups as the Roger Wagner Chorale or the Robert Shaw Chorale). Just last week the Minnesota Orchestra premiered his newly orchestrated version of this music.
Missa syllabica for mixed chorus and organ, composed in 1977 and revised in 1996. Pärt’s setting of the Latin Mass is a watershed composition dating from the fertile period just after he’d arrived at the tintinnabuli style, for this represents his first composition working with a text. As the composer explains: “I wanted to approach the text not so much with my own emotions and own personal understanding, but rather to use it in an objective way so that one might make use of it in a liturgical context. So I encoded every word, ensuring for example that the final syllable of each word corresponded to the tonic.” He adds that for him “the text” means to take into account “the number of syllables, commas, full stops, and accents.” The tonics in question (as applied to the first or uppermost vocal line heard in each section) are D (Kyrie, tenors), A (Gloria, altos), D (Credo, basses), F (Sanctus, sopranos), A (Agnus Dei, altos), and D (Ite missa est, all four parts).
Formulaic as this sounds, the real achievement here is how Pärt’s remake of numerological techniques from early music to create something fresh: “by referring back to this tradition and to its compositional techniques, I could breathe life into the dead numbers.”
Cloudburst for mixed chorus, piano and percussion, composed in 1992. This early work already demonstrates the confidence of the young Whitacre in imaginatively using the choral medium to amplify the imagery of a poem — another by one of his favorite poets, Octavio Paz: “El Cántaro Roto” (“The Broken Water-Jug”). Water and rain are turned into metaphors of spiritual reawakening, with music as the force that enacts it: “We must sing till the song puts forth roots.”
Whitacre writes that Cloudburst represents a ceremonial “celebration of the unleashed kinetic energy in all things.” Listen again for his familiar clustered harmonies, which suit Paz’s dreamlike imagery uncannily well. Whitacre even includes chance effects, along with non-vocal gestures from the singers to simulate the imaginary storm.
Morning Star for a cappella mixed chorus, composed in 2007 on a commission by Durham University to mark the occasion of its 175th anniversary. Pärt here sets an English text: the prayer inscribed above the tomb of the important scholar St. Bede (672-735), who is best known for his History of the English Church and People. (He also came up with the convention of dating events after the birth of Jesus “AD”.) This brief, comparatively recent piece shows how Pärt continues to develop the vocabulary of his tintinnabuli style — here with chromatic colorings and references to older modes — even as its basic “aesthetic and compositional principles have remained basically unchanged,” according to Leopold Brauneiss in his reflections on the philosophy and technique of tintinnabuli.
Sainte Chapelle for SSATB a cappella, composed on a commission from the Tallis Scholars to commemorate their 40th anniversary in 2013 and premiered at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on March 7, 2013, conducted by Peter Phillips. This is another of Whitacre’s settings to original Latin poetry by Charles Anthony Silvestri. Unlike Water Night, the genesis here was complicated and drawn out — in part because Whitacre felt intimidated by the invitation to write for the Tallis Scholars, which was “thrilling and terrifying at the same time.” He started with a musical image inspired by the architecture of Gaudí’s Sagrada Família Cathedral in Barcelona “spiraling into heaven” but discarded most of his first sketch, retaining only a setting of the words “Sanctus! Sanctus! Sanctus!” A trip to the Gothic beauty of Sainte-Chapelle in the heart of Paris provided the missing link, and Whitacre asked his friend Silvestri to craft a Latin poem from the story of an innocent girl who is awed when she enters the Cathedral and hears angels singing from the stained-glass windows. The composer says he wanted to convey a sense of the Tallis singers’ Renaissance repertoire, similarly “refracted a little” like the light that shines through these cathedral windows.
The Beatitudes for mixed chorus and organ, composed in 1990 and revised in 1991. Using the famous “Sermon on the Mount” from St. Matthew’s Gospel in English translation, this is another example of the specificity with which Arvo Pärt responds to the text: not in the manner of “word painting” as, say, in Bach, but according to specific formulas dictated by the word patterns, as we heard in the Missa syllabica. In fact, when he was asked to have the piece sung in Latin, he had to essentially rewrite his setting as the Beatitudines.
Tracing a gradual harmonic ascent, each statement is separated by a pause. The pared-down surface simplicity of Pärt’s style beautifully mirrors the paradoxes of Jesus’ teaching, with its radical oppositions. In musical terms, he uses contrasts between linear chant and sustained, bell-like harmonies, motion and stasis, sound and silence, and, in the final part, between a cappella voices and organ improvisation.
Sleep for a cappella mixed chorus was composed in 2000 on a commission from Julia Armstrong, an Austin-based singer wishing to commemorate her parents. She requested Whitacre to set her favorite poem, Robert Frost’s 1922 Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Only after he’d done so — creating a gemlike example of Whitacre’s “contemporary sublime” — did he learn from the Frost Estate that he’d mistakenly assumed the poem was available for musical setting. The Estate refused to budge and give him permission, so Whitacre had Tony Silvestri devise a completely new English text to the music he’d already written (an approach reminiscent of the “parody” tradition from early music).
“This was an enormous task,” says the composer, “because I was asking him to not only write a poem that had the exact structure of the Frost, but that would even incorporate key words from Stopping, like ‘sleep.’ Tony wrote an absolutely exquisite poem, finding a completely different (but equally beautiful) message in the music I had already written. I actually prefer Tony’s poem now…”
The City and the Sea represents an ongoing project that began in 2011: along with the version for mixed chorus and piano that we hear, Whitacre has just created one for baritone solo. There are five songs in the set to date, with more possible to come. The texts are from another of the composer’s signature poets, e.e. cummings (1894-1962). In his response to the patterns suggested by the verse, Whitacre here forges new musical territory, extending his familiar style to incorporate jazzy, angular rhythms in i walked the boulevard and little man in a hurry. The common denominator here is an aggressive harmonic idiom centered on “white key clusters on the piano,” explains Whitacre. “I’ve started calling this the ‘oven-mitt’ technique, because the chords are played as if you are wearing mitts on your hands — the four fingers all bunched together and the thumb on its own.” But this technique is far from “one-note-ish”: it also yields serene, reflective music, as in the setting of the moon is hiding in her hair, and the childlike innocence of maggie and milly and molly and may, in which the clusters are “tamed” into gentler arpeggios.
—Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.