Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, Arvo Pärt

Fallen bells of St. Mary’s Church, Lübeck
The music of the Estonian composer is laced through with an obsession with church bells: their unsettling suggestion of the sacred and the profane.

“That little bell rings, and I rage”. The clang of church bells that fills the world of Goethe’s Faust embodies the tragedy of development. They evoke all the constricted social and political forces of the old world, and yet at a crucial moment, remind him of childhood, of the vital link to the past. Their incessant pealing provides unsettling suggestions of the sacred and the profane.

These bells ring out in longing in the imagination of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Wearied after state censorship during the 1950s, Pärt began to drift away from his early serialist experimentation. He began to “work with the most primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality.” This was the language of Erik Satie and Franco-Flemish choral music, but above all, that of the Orthodox Church – its particular intonations, rituals and bells. “The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.” After a 8 year hiatus, his 1976 piano miniature Für Alina emerged, combining pedal points and opposing registers to produce a state of “time and timelessness’”.

Luminous bells continued to resonate as Pärt took up residence in Berlin in 1981. He had arrived at an important time. The legendary producer Manfred Eicher of the ECM record label first heard the Estonian composer on the radio in the early 1980s, and later described the experience as discovering “a music of slowly beating wings”. Pärt’s marriage of spectacular commercial success and his own hermit-like existence placed him in the tradition of “the new simplicity”, the spiritual minimalism that had suddenly blossomed from the former Soviet bloc and became a perfect fit for the 1980s, infusing late capitalism with an oasis of calm, providing triumphalist resolution to the violence of the 20th century.

1977’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten was written to mourn the death of the English composer, but also perfectly captures the moment of Pärt’s musical rebirth. This piece of romantic minimalism, layered with aching chimes, encapsulates how Pärt’s fully formed style comes together in sparse musical language. A string orchestra forms the winding, yearning grounding for bell tones that literally hang in the air. These hovering bells tremble in silent intervals, fading at the edge of spaces, and reach for moments of pure devastation.

Listening notes: For all the sonic grandeur, Cantus plays out as a single 7 minute composition. A bell tolls three times. Sections of the orchestra descend an A minor scale in turn. The sound field gains depth, breaking in waves, before it gives way to the sound of a dying bell.

Image: The fallen bells of St. Mary’s Church, Lübeck.