Spiegel im Spiegel, composed in 1978, was the last work Arvo Pärt completed before leaving his native Estonia. Following the inaugural "tintinnabular" works by only two years, the work stands as one of the most carefully distilled examples of Pärt's new compositional aesthetic, and its extreme tranquility contrasts sharply with the tension and frustration that characterized his music from a decade before.
To fully appreciate the beauty of Spiegel im Spiegel, we must go back a few years. The late 1960s found Pärt in an artistic quandary. Having tired of the brash, neoclassic style of his first published works (see, for example, the Partita), and growing equally frustrated with the predominant serialist style of the day, he composed several works that seemed to reflect no style of his own, but rather comment on the inadequacy of and incompatibility between the choices at hand. Pro et Contra and the Second Symphony, both from 1968, were characterized by rude, jarring juxtapositions of style, and reflected the urgency of Pärt's crisis. Shortly after their composition, Pärt withdrew from public composition altogether, and over the next few years composed only two works. This period was one of intense reflection and study (particularly of Medieval and Renaissance music), and by the time Pärt re-emerged in the late 1970s, he had developed an entirely new approach to composition, which became known as the "tintinnabular" style.
The principles of tintinnabuli are demonstrated clearly and elegantly in Spiegel im Spiegel. The basic technique calls for a combination of two types of voices: a melodic voice, that moves in simple stepwise fashion across diatonic scales; and a tintinnabula voice, which confines itself to pitches within the tonic triad. The chord tones follow certain variable patterns; in the case of Spiegel im Spiegel, the tintinnabular voice is the second note in each three-note accompanimental figure, which always falls on the nearest chord tone below the melodic voice (transposed down an octave). Thus, in the underlying and omnipresent F major tonality, a melodic voice on an A or G is paired with a tintinnabular voice on F; if the melody moves down to F, the tintinnabular voice drops down to the C, and so forth.
The striking lyricism of the piece certainly does not suggest the rigid guidelines with which it is constructed. Scored for violin and piano (with the option of transposing the violin part down an octave to be played by a cello), the work is made of slow, steady lines ascending and descending in the violin part, over a serene and uninterrupted arpeggio accompaniment in the piano. This texture is occasionally colored by low, sustained Fs in the bass and high, bell-like (or, to use the word in its original context, tintinnabular) consonances in the upper piano register. The gentle lines in the violin are actually built according to a strict formula: beginning with the two-note scale G-A, the violin alternately ascends then descends to A by step. With each subsequent ascent and descent, a note is added to the line. There is no sense of drama, tension, or ambiguity here--when we hear the violin leap to high G, we know the stepwise path it is going to take on its way back down to A. The beauty of the tintinnabulum is not the construction of emotional trajectory, but rather the creation of an introspective atmosphere made of pure sonority.