Arvo Pärt (1935-present) is an Estonian classical composer and one of the most prominent living composers of sacred music, whose shimmeringly beautiful music is a curious and compelling blend of the secular and the sacred.
Life and Music
When Pärt’s parents separated the year before the outbreak of the Second World War, he moved with his mother to Rakvere.
At school he studied piano, percussion and oboe, and at 14 he began composing. Within three years he had written Meloodia, a solo piano piece in the style of Rachmaninov, which was commended in a young artists’ competition.
In 1954, he was called up for National Service in the army for two years.
On his return from National Service, Pärt studied at the Tallinn Conservatory with Heino Eller, then a leading Estonian composer.
While studying, Pärt landed a job as a studio engineer with Estonian radio, but this didn’t stop him composing – in fact, he notched up more than 50 soundtracks.
He was the first Estonian composer to apply the principles of serialism to his work and was criticised at the time for using such a ‘decadent’ Western technique.
In 1968 the authorities criticised Pärt’s work Credo, because its religious title seemed to challenge the pillars on which the Soviet Union was built. It seemed impossible for Pärt to be true to himself while also pleasing the authorities and so he hardly wrote a note during the next decade.
In the first half of the 1970s, Pärt’s health, damaged during his time in the army, recovered. He also joined the Russian Orthodox Church and married his second wife.
Pärt’s music relies on his deeply held faith and is infused with the centuries-old traditions of European church music, but it is for each listener to make up their own mind whether his music really is ‘religious’.
Did you know?
Pärt was once asked by a musician in rehearsal at what speed he should play a piece of his music. 'What speed do you want?' replied the composer. 'Play your heartbeat.'