- Litany (1994)
To Helmuth Rilling and the Oregon Bach Festival
[...] recorded September 1995 Niguliste Church, Tallinn
[...] commissioned by the 25th Oregon Bach Festival
To Alfred Schlee on his birthday
- Trisagion (1992/95)
Dedicated to the parish of Prophet Elias in Ilomantsi on the occasion of its 500th anniversary
- Psalom and Trisagion recorded September 1995 Mozart-Saal / Liederhalle, Stuttgart.
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tonu Kaljuste, conductor
Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra
Saulius Sondeckis, conductor
World premiere recordings of Litany, Psalom, and Trisagion, made with the participation of the composer, comprise Arvo Part's first New Series album in three years.The text of Litany is derived from the prayers of St John Chrysostum for each hour of the day and night. These 24 brief prayers, first offered up by the hermit who became Patriarch of Constantinople in 398 (and who is best-known as the author of the liturgy now at the heart of the Russian orthodox service) are heard here as a series of invocations and responses. Each prayer, each plea, begins with the words "O Lord", variously intoned by the chorus - in this instance the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir - and the soloists, members of the Hilliard Ensemble.London Times music critic Hilary Finch was present at the first performance of Litany in Oregon in 1994 (the piece was commissioned by the 25th Oregon Bach Festival, and is dedicated to the festival and to its artistic director, Helmuth Rilling) and filed the following report:"A two-note figure in divided violins introduces the work. 'O Lord of thy heavenly bounties deprive me not. O Lord, deliver me from the eternal torments.' The lines descend through the four solo voices, each time haloed by the chorus's sustained invocation and brushed by the spare orchestral texture. Five [bell] strokes signal the fifth prayer, as rhythmic and harmonic activity intensify only to arch back again to a quiet 'Amen.' (...) With a masterstroke which epitomises Part's distilled and rarified musical thinking, the work ends with a plangent countertenor cry as, a sudden bare octave apart, the voices intone a blessing 'unto the ages'."At a composition seminar at the Bach Festival, Part informed students that he had been familiar with the words embodied in Litany "for approximately twenty years. And I have always had a wish to find some kind of musical resolution for this text. And now, starting in November [of 1993], I was dealing with it."Although Part's music has found a very broad and appreciative public response in the 12 years since the ECM New Series was initiated to launch Tabula Rasa, reactions to performances of Litany have been exceptional by any standards. In Oregon, the ovation that greeted the first performance was, in the words of Helmuth Rilling, "unheard of", the veteran conductor insisting he had "never seen a premiere received with such enthusiasm." The work has continued to make a powerful impact on its listeners, as long-term Part associate Tonu Kaljuste (refer to New Series recordings of the Te Deum, Silouans Song, Magnificat, and Berliner Messe) has assumed the conductor's role in the course of performances with the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. As with each of Part's ECM projects, Litany was allowed to change and to settle, as it were, to undergo a natural metamorphosis through concert performances until its composer and producer felt it ready to be transferred to disc. Arvo Part: "There is a kind of feeling of relief when I am pleased with a recording - a release of the piece from myself - the piece is now set free". Part elaborated on his feelings about recordings following the Litany premiere in Oregon:"I have had a great opportunity to make recordings according to my natural musical breathing. As an example, before we recorded Passio, we had thirty live performances and for most of those performances the people from ECM were there. We were looking for a sound and the right space to record. In contrast with another big name company where my work was sight-read and two cuts were taken and not even listened to. Can you understand how cosmic the difference is - not only for the recording, but for the soul of the composer'"Psalom and Trisagion are played by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra under Saulius Sondeckis, whose pioneering interpretation of Tabula Rasa (ECM New Series 1275) gave early notice of the singularity of Part's musical vision. Trisagion, too, although purely instrumental, takes its inspirational impetus from the work of John Chrysostum, and is named for the "thrice holy" call in the frequent introductory prayers of the Eastern Church. The instrumental miniature Psalom, originally written for string quartet in 1985 and revised for string orchestra, is similarly inspired by the text of Psalm 113, "Praise ye the Lord, O ye servants of the Lord".The religious references are not to be gainsaid - their importance for the composer is plain enough - but nor should they encourage listeners to make assumptions about Part's own inner life or "spirituality". Asked what role prayer plays in his work, he responds, "I've heard that Haydn spent 45 minutes composing and then had a pause for 15 minutes. And if nothing came out of his composing he was praying very hard for those 15 minutes. There is something very beautiful in this story - it has always fascinated me. But I myself haven't reached this yet. We need to have a special situation to be able to speak about prayer at all. Sometimes even priests in the church are not able to do this. We can't have small talk about this kind of thing..." He also brushes aside queries about time spent in a monastery while working on Litany: "I am not a prophet, not a cardinal, not a monk. I am not even a vegetarian. Don't be confused by cheap tabloid information. Of course I am in monasteries more often than in concert halls - but then again, you have no idea how many times I am in concert halls."In the secular world, Part's achievements were honoured in his 61st year by his election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Honorary membership in the Academy is reserved for 75 artists, writers and composers, not citizens of the United States, whose work is gratefully acknowledged by their American colleagues. From the laudation welcoming the Estonian composer to the Academy: "Often composing with no more than basic scales and broken triads Arvo Part has created a body of religious and secular music that simultaneously moves the heart and impresses itself on the mind through its purity of craftsmanship. A devout Orthodox Catholic, he has composed a Te Deum, Miserere, and his enormously moving Passio, among others. His secular works include Fratres and Cantus In Memory of Benjamin Britten. While totally maintaining his integrity he has nevertheless become one of the most frequently performed living composers."
1. Litany, for ATTB soloists, chorus & orchestra - 1995
Undoubtedly linked to his deep religious convictions, much of Arvo Part's music seems to explore, challenge, and even alter perceptions of time-to perhaps intimate the eternal within a given frame of mortal time. Works like Festina Lente and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten are structured as fractals or holograms: we are presented with the same musical material layered on top of itself, moving concurrently at several different rates of speed. We are thus able to view the musical figure in simulated three-dimensional time, from various angles and distances. In these works, time is treated as matter. Part's Litany: Prayers of St. John Chrysostom for Each Hour of the Day and Night, is a different kind of exploration, one whose subject is not the fluid material of time, but the containers (clocks, calendars, lifetimes) that the mortal mind stores that material in.
Composed in 1994, the work calls for a full orchestra, ATTB soloists, and choir. It takes as its text a set of prayers attributed to John Chrysostom, a fourth-century saint. As the title suggests, there are twenty-four prayers in all, most of them short, proverbial utterances of a few words. The work is built upon Part's signature "tintinnabular" technique, a kind of proto-minimalist concept that retains an omnipresent sense of tonal center while disregarding the traditional "functionality" of harmonic progressions. The texture is well suited to devotional music, as it maintains a generally serene harmonic stability while allowing a unique kind of expression-providing a force against which dissonance can resist. The technique relies on the combination of two lines, conveniently identified in Paul Hillier's authoritative book as "M-(melodic) voices" and T-(tintinnabular) voices." The M-voice follows a stepwise contour that is based on the length of individual words; thus, a longer word will generally be set to a broader melodic curve. These lines are set in a kind of counterpoint to the T-voices, which leap between tonic chord tones above and below the M-voices. For Part, this duality has all kinds of religious overtones. The composer sees the M-voice as representing carnality, mortality, and sin. The T-voice is associated with spirituality, godliness, and redemption. The Litany is thus a complex matrix of musical devices and well as musical symbols.
Though it certainly doesn't approach the length of time represented, the work marks off divisions of "time" with musical cues. The first four "hours" are each introduced by a descending scale that grows by one note with each subsequent prayer. After the descending scale, the choir holds one or more pitches, according to the number of that particular hour, while a soloist sings the prayer text. During the next four hours (five through eight), pizzicato scales of between five and eight notes (again, corresponding to the number of the prayer) announce the hour. The numerical cues from the first eight prayers are employed in combination to mark the remaining prayers of the first half. In the second half, the timpani counts down, announcing each odd-numbered hour by repeating a figure the appropriate number of times. The even-numbered hours are signaled by an ever-growing scalar figure in the woodwinds.
This entire series is set within an overarching harmonic cycle. The first half begins on a high B, under which an E minor harmony is established. The second half moves to C# minor, but at the end drops to B, indicating the full circle of the earth's rotation and the return to the beginning of the cycle.
- Jeremy Grimshaw
2. Psalom, for string orchestra - 1995
Many works within Arvo Part's output have been arranged for string quartet; the composer pared down Summa from its original forces, and Fratres is available for performance by more than a half dozen different instrumental combinations. Still, by the turn of the century Part's Psalom stood as the only work-other than some early student compositions-to have been originally conceived for four stings. Psalom is an extremely spare piece, even by Part's standards, and not just in its instrumentation. It consist of nine statements of theme, each one not so much a variation of the line but a reshuffling of its constituent elements-distinguishing itself from the others in the same subtle way in which one cloud out of several asserts its identity. The work utilizes sonorities from Part's signature "tintinnabula" style. Developed in the 1970s after years of introspection and experimentation (as well as careful analysis of medieval and renaissance composers like Machaut, Josquin, and Ockeghem), the tintinnabula technique seeks to glean the expressive essence from tonality while shedding the semiotics of "function." As a result, works such as Psalom are unquestionably tonal, but this tonic focus feels more like a center of gravity than a destination. This is because in the tintinnabula system, the tonic is always present, within lines that confine themselves to tonic chord tones only. Set against these so-called tintinnabula voices are melodic voices that move largely in scalar, diatonic motion. Since we never really leave the tonic, we never feel that urgent desire for return that characterizes romantic-era tonality (take, for example, the unbearably drawn out dominant chord that precedes the return of the tonic in the Liebestod). The usually homophonic, chord-by-chord texture of the tintinnabula process is made even more serene in Psalom, in that Part engages or disengaged the tintinnabula voices at will, frequently letting the melodic voice(s) carve out their austere lines without placing them in contrapuntal resistance to any tintinnabula lines. Elsewhere, drones make the tonic center omnipresent. All of the nine variations occupy more or less the same range except for the sixth, which features a sustained pedal tone that drops anchor in the deepest waters of the ensemble's range, with profound effect. One can read this piece as a portrayal of-or perhaps the very act of-some kind of personal religious devotional. The title (Psalom = "psalm") suggests a kind of concentrated spiritual poetry, and Part himself tells us that the combination of melodic and tintinnabula voices carries various religious symbolisms: sin and redemption, humanity and divinity, the immortal spirit and its mortal tabernacle. Of all the tintinnabula works whose process evokes these attitudes, the diminished forces and materials of Psalom seem to do so with an added measure of humility.
- Jeremy Grimshaw
3. Trisagion, for string orchestra - 1995
Arvo Part's Trisagion (1992) blurs the distinction between evocation and portrayal, expression and imitation. Written in honor of the 500th anniversary of the parish of Prophet Elias in Ilomantsi, the music itself seems to take on a devotional attitude. It is composed in Part's distinctive "tintinnabula" style - a spare contrapuntal structure rich with religious symbolism. Moreover, the structure and phraseology of the work - the contours that the lines follow - are derived in a very real way from a religious text, even though the work is composed for strings only.
The tintinnabula style as seen at work in Trisagion involves the combination of two kinds of voices: one type follows gentle, diatonic, scalar lines along stepwise paths; the other type, called tintinnabula lines (after the Latin word for "bell"), engages in counterpoint with the melodic voice by leaping between tones above and below it, always confining itself to tones within the tonic chord. The result is a harmonic atmosphere in which the tonic center is always present, but frequently engaged in a relationship of resistance with non-tonic-chord tones.
The relationship between melodic and tintinnabula voices suggests numerous religious metaphors (some of them identified by Part himself): sin and redemption, the opposition and convergence of the spirit and the body, Jesus' mixed ancestry of humanity and divinity. This meaning is made even more explicit in the Slavonic text (also given in translation) which underlies the score. This is the logical extension of the technique used a year earlier in Silouan's Song; in the earlier work, subtitled "My soul yearns after the Lord...," the "text" is taken from the writings of the sagely monk whose name the work bears. In both cases, unbeknownst to the uninformed listener, every stop and go in the music is dictated by the syllabic number and accentuation, phrasing, and punctuation of the text. To those listeners ignorant of the Slavonic language, this probably has an effect quite similar to that of listening to the Slavonic prayer itself: though words pass by without comprehension, one identifies the devotional feeling and the calm, deliberate declamation of prayer.
- Jeremy Grimshaw