Though the two never met, Arvo Pärt was profoundly saddened by the death of English composer Benjamin Britten in 1976. "I had just discovered Britten for myself," recalled Pärt. "Just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music -- I had had the impression of the same kind of purity in the ballads of Guillaume de Machaut." In his musical memorial to Britten, Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977), Pärt demonstrates the kind of purity of concept to which he aspires in his own music.
The surface features of the work paint an almost macabre scene. A chime for dead tolls grimly, while the string lines consist of perpetually descending minor scales over elongated pedal tones. The overall shape seems to follow the procession to the cemetery and the lifeless body into the grave. However, a closer look at the processes at work in the Cantus, and a bit of insight into the philosophies behind those processes, reveal much deeper layers of spiritual meaning.
The work is constructed according to the principles of "tintinnabula," a style feature Pärt developed in the late 1970s after becoming disenchanted with his own experiments in functional tonality, serialism, collage, and polystylism. Taking its name from the word describing the sound of a pealing bell, this technique explores the possibilities of fleshing out a tonal center as a kind of omnipresent resonance rather than as a point of departure and return; in essence, Pärt removed the goal-directedness of functional harmony in order to explore the sheer sonority of the triad. To do so, he employed two kinds of musical line, which Paul Hillier, in his important 1997 study of the composer's music, identifies as M-lines and T-lines. M-lines are melodic lines that proceed in scalar or stepwise motion, usually within a diatonic scale and usually according to some kind of patterning system. T-lines, or tintinnabular lines, emphasize the sonority of the tonal center by confining themselves to chord tones. In the Cantus, the first and second violins, cellos, and basses are all employed divisi, with each section accommodating both a T- and an M-line. To these four pairs is added a single melodic line in the viola, the only one without a corresponding tintinnabular voice. This texture is maintained until the last section of the work, at which point the melodic voices gradually conform to the predominating chord tones.
Another process is also at work in the Cantus. The most prominent melodic contour is a simple descending A minor scale; this descending line, however, appears concurrently in various octaves and in various rhythmic values. The aural result is that each of the melodic voices in the five instrumental groups plays the line at a different but proportional rate of speed, so that the first violins are 16 times as fast as the basses. This kind of telescopic unity is cosmologically poignant, in the composer's aesthetic, and hints at a kind of multidimensional chronology that exists only in the hereafter.
Even deeper meanings can be found in the use of tintinnabular technique. Pärt proposes that the practice evokes all kinds of spiritual dualities. The melodic voice can be read to correspond with the mortal, the tintinnabular voice with the eternal -- a dichotomy of body and spirit. Thus, before the final bell tolls, and as the M-voices melt into the triadic ether, the body doesn't just descend into the earth: the immortal spirit ascends into heaven.