Arvo Pärt

Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, for string orchestra & bell

    Description by Jeremy Grimshaw

    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.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2015 ECM / ECM New Series 4811905
    2015 Naïve V 5407
    2013 Linn / Linn Records CKD 432
    2013 Decca
    2012 Apex / Warner Classics 2564660705
    2012 Simax Classics PSC 1302
    2012 Decca B 001730902
    2012 Decca / Universal Classics & Jazz / Universal Music Mexico S.a. De C.V. (Decca)
    2011 CSO Media CSOM 946
    2011 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099908586223
    2010 Analekta 28731
    2010 ECM 14563
    2010 ECM 4763878
    2010 ECM 001503602
    2010 EMI / EMI Classics VTDCDX 1004
    2010 ABC Classics 4763951
    2010 Warner Classics
    2010 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099962944
    2009 EMI Classics / EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 5099996424
    2008 Rca Red Seal 82876502682
    2008 Naxos 8506015
    2007 ECM
    2007 X5 Music Group 21300
    2006 Warner Classics
    2005 Naxos 8558182-83
    2005 BIS 1434
    2005 Chandos 24118
    2005 Chandos 24126
    2004 Capriccio Records 67079
    2004 Chandos Collect / Chandos 6681
    2004 Warner Classics 4601902
    2003 BIS 300834
    2003 RCA Victor 82876514382
    2002 Erato / Virgin 7243545501
    2000 EMI Music Distribution 65031
    1998 Virgin 45314
    1998 EMI Music Distribution 73117
    1997 Naxos 8 553750
    1997 Angel Records 56402
    1997 EMI Angel CVC-56402
    1997 BIS 834
    1996 Chandos 7039
    1995 Telarc Distribution 80387
    1994 BIS 420
    1994 Delos 1031
    1992 Chandos 8656
    EMI Music Distribution 575805
    ECM New Series / ECM 8177642
    HMV Classics 72315
    BBC Music Magazine 210
    IMP Classics 9129
    BMG 68061