Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence by Peter C Bouteneff
Our ‘Book of the Month’ for September is a biography of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, whose work will be performed at the Last Night of the Proms on the 12th September 2015. He is also the featured composer of the BBC Music Magazine for September (which comes with a free CD! Arvo Pärt: A Celebration)
What is it that makes Arvo Pärt the most performed living composer in the world? What unites a brief two-page score of Für Alina, the drawn-out intensity of Passio and the emotional agonies of Adam’s Lament? Who is this composer of extreme simplicity and rigorous complexity, of calculated scales and triads, of excruciatingly beautiful tone and semitone dissonances? How does such innocent gossamer distillation sustain those who suffer, ‘split [people] open like … an oyster’ (38), and ‘devastate’ audiences (67), so that their mind sinks into their hearts (68-9)?
These are the themes of Peter Bouteneff’s fine study, ready just in time for Pärt’s 80th birthday on 11 September. Balancing Paul Hillier’s excellent musicological Arvo Pärt of 1997, Bouteneff explores Pärt’s Russian Orthodox spiritual theology. After ‘Points of Entry’, ‘Out of Silence’ link two critical moments: the personal musical silence (composer’s block?) of 1968-1976, during which Pärt joined the Russian Orthodox Church; and the existential-spiritual silence out of which creation comes – including various modes of silence (103), and supremely the ‘thundering silence’ of Jesus’ life and death (116). Surprisingly, it was the Western musical tradition that provided the impetus for Pärt’s own new musical language, and for his intriguing poetry of tintinnabuli (‘little bells’).
The typically Orthodox title of the final chapter – ‘Bright Sadness’ – beautifully focusses the paradox of all Part’s writing: ‘coincidences of opposites’ (176) – joy and earthedness, this instant and eternity, sorrow and consolation, brokenness and beauty, stillness and energy – all aspects of the Orthodox quest for that hesychasm which is the ‘intelligent silence’ (125) of God’s peace within, as opposed to today’s incessant noise (cf. the brilliant quotation from C S Lewis’ Screwtape Letters on p. 134!). The text of Adam’s Lament (210-9), written by St Silouan (one of Pärt’s chief inspirations), provides a fitting conclusion to this sensitive, probing and enriching study of Arvo Pärt: the believer.
Reviewed by Philip Seddon
Special price of £11.50 in the shop (posted out for free) or buy it online for £9.50 + postage until 30th Septmber 2015. RRP £12.99.