Arvo Pärt

Silouans Song, for string orchestra

    Description by Jeremy Grimshaw

    Few composers shape their works according to their personal religious philosophy as deeply and poignantly as Arvo Pärt does, and within his oeuvre, few pieces can be found that carry as heavy a spiritual weight as Silouan's Song. Pärt's treatment of religious topics is never a mere acknowledgment of a long-standing musical tradition, or an objective experiment within a church-derived musical form. The intensity of a work such as Silouan's Song is not a musical construction, but a very personal expression of faith. Archimandrite Sophrony, to whom Pärt dedicated this work, served for a time as assistant to a barely literate but sagely Staretz (elder) at the monastery of St. Panteleimon named Silouan (1866-1938). The "text" of this work is taken from the large body of Silouan's prayerful, psalmnodic writings. I say "text," because the work is scored for strings only. Nonetheless, the homophonic, meditatively recitational flow of the piece betrays the rhythm of an unspoken but underlying text, one that begins with and is encapsulated by the evocative phrase "My soul yearns after the Lord." Silouan's Song employs a bare minimum of musical materials in an effort to suspend time, to step outside of it and observe it from various directions and distances. In this effort Pärt finds himself in the company of Silouan himself. As Archimandrate Sophrony prefaced a collection of his mentor's writings, "Only a few thoughts engage the Staretz' soul, is mind, but ontologically these thought are the most profound. They are the measure of all that exists. Whoever in the depths of his being is inspired by such thinking beholds the world as it were through a mysterious spiritual prism." The work is composed according to Pärt's innovative "tintinnabula" principle, a technique he developed in the 1970s during a long period in which he avoided public composition altogether. It eschews Pärt's earlier serialist and collage processes in favor of a kind of proto-minimalist approach, in which the tonic triad is almost always present in the texture, engaged in constant relationships of resistance and reconciliation by non-tonic tones and harmonies. This is accomplished by giving melodic lines to some voices, moving diatonically in stepwise motion, while other voices confine themselves to pitches within the tonic triad. Pärt himself reads profound religious symbolism in this process: the melodic voices are associated with sin, sorrow, and mortality, while the omnipresent tintinnabula lines represent redemption, divinity, and eternity. As in other works of this kind (the Magnificat, Te Deum), the combination of elements suggests numerous allegories: the willing spirit vs. the weak flesh, or perhaps Christ's mixed lineage of godhood and manhood. The work takes on the tone of a prayer. Settings of the unspoken text phrases are separated by ponderous pauses. Though we are given none of the original Russian text (and only the incipit of the English translation), it seems apparent that Pärt is utilizing a melodic technique that aligns pitch changes with the accented syllable(s), in each word. This would explain the appearance of seemingly arbitrary strings of solemnly repeated chords. Having delegated many of the compositional decisions to the tintinnabula process, Pärt concerns himself with minute but crucial details. Sudden shifts in range have striking effect, and within this extremely homogenous texture, the deliberate absence or presence of vibrato makes all the difference. Perhaps the most careful nuance is to be found before the penultimate phrase. The sudden fff pickup is preceded by a two beat silence, during which the performers are instructed to crescendo.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Erato 556104
    2015 ECM / ECM New Series 4811905
    2007 Varèse Sarabande 066782
    2002 Erato / Virgin 7243545501
    1993 ECM R8-262
    1993 ECM
    1993 ECM New Series / ECM 439162