The list of winners of the prestigious Ratzinger prize in theology now includes an artist—composer Arvo Pärt. (You can read more about the award and its recipients here.)
Arvo Pärt is best-known in the U.S. for his sacred vocal/choral music, though his instrumental works are beginning to receive more notice here as well. He is of the Eastern Orthodox tradition (which he joined in his late twenties, after having been raised in the Lutheran tradition), yet much of his sacred choral music features classic Roman rite Latin texts: The Mass, Te Deum, Stabat Mater, Nunc Dimittis, Magnificat, and so on. In his study and growth as a composer, Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony exerted a great influence on him.
Though often classified with composers who write in a minimalist style—Philip Glass and John Adams being the most familiar names of this school—Pärt’s music more often uses what he termed the “tintinnabuli” (little bells) technique. (Though the two styles or techniques share much: the repetition of brief melodic or rhythmic patterns, the layering of harmonies, the occasional effect of near-motionlessness).
As with the chant CD of the monks of Santo Domingo a number of years back, Pärt’s music has found an audience outside of ecclesial/liturgical circles, largely for its sense of mysticism and its remove from most facets of the sound world we inhabit. Pärt’s musical mysticism is a close relative of Olivier Messiaen’s, but has found wider reception, perhaps due to his greater restraint when it comes to decibel range and harmonic dissonance. The Sanctus from his Berliner Messe, for example, gives Isaiah’s cherubim song a hushed reverence—in contrast to the text’s more usual bombastic settings.
The influence of religion or religiosity pervades much of his non-sacred work. His wordless Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten for strings and one bell reveals this. The example provided here shows the unhurried approach he often takes both to melody and harmony.
Pärt has tended to be content to let his musical compositions speak for themselves. In a 2014 interview with the New York Times, he said “Religion guides all the processes in our lives, without us even knowing it. It is true that religion has a very important role in my composition, but how it really works, I am not able to describe.”