Five pieces guaranteed to get you into the incredible music of Arvo Pärt

11 September 2015, 15:54 | Updated: 11 September 2015, 16:09

On Friday 11 September, a true musical great of our time turns 80. Our Smooth Classics at 7 presenter, John Brunning, picks five pieces that, for him, sum up the majesty, magic and mystery of the great Estonian composer.

This music is unique, atmospheric and compelling. To me, Arvo Pärt finds a way to capture ancient sounds and the world of monasteries, Gregorian chant and church bells, with something that feels strikingly minimalist and modern. His music ranges from hauntingly simple creations, to elaborately layered works for full orchestra - I've picked out my favourites.

Spiegel im Spiegel

A gentle arpeggio on the piano and a slow-moving melody in the violin. Sounds simple, doesn't it? And that's the magic of it. To me the the simplicity and stillness of this piece is almost divine. The title translates as "mirror in the mirror", referring to a state of infinity, rather like those constant triads in the piano. Every time I have the pleasure of playing it in Smooth Classics at 7, time feels as if it stands still. Listen, and see if you know what I mean.

Tabula Rasa

This is a stunning piece – a double concerto for two solo violins, prepared piano, and chamber orchestra that uses his distinctive 'tintinnabuli' (meaning 'bell-like') style of composition. The result is beautifully transcendent – simple musical figures and patterns are slowly repeated throughout the orchestra, with a prepared piano evoking church bells. 


A third piece where the composer explores his trademark 'tintinnabuli' style. It's based on a repeating chord progression over a pedal note – a technique that can be found in much Baroque music. Some of the variations are still and lyrical, some are thrillingly virtuosic, some are full of emotion. It was originally written for violin and piano, but I love this haunting, atmospheric arrangement by the composer for violin, string orchestra and percussion – listen to the heart-breaking melody on the violin at around 5.20.  

Für Alina

This beautiful piece for solo piano is incredibly simple on the page – just two lines of notes, over a low pedal note. The performer interprets the speed and feel of these notes, giving the impression of a slow, exquisite musical meditation. It's renowned as a challenging work for even the finest pianists, requiring focus, restraint and the most musical ear. Like so much of his music, it's proof that music need not be complex or elaborate to be incredibly powerful.


Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten

Pärt penned this incredible work in 1976 as an elegy for the English composer Benjamin Britten. It is written for strings and bells, and once again features his 'tintinnabuli' style – that trademark repeated chord progression under a simple motif. In this piece, a gentle falling musical idea has an effect of a slow beautiful descent, taking you to a perfectly peaceful place. 

Like what you hear? We'll be featuring the great composer's music on his birthday in Smooth Classics at 7, along with plenty of other evocative, peaceful pieces of music – just the thing you need at the end of a busy day. You can listen online here.