Arvo Pärt

Composer: Arvo Pärt
Date of Birth: 11 September 1935
Date of Death: n/a
Nationality: Estonian
Period/Era/Style: 20th Century-21st Century/holy minimalism, polystylism
Contribution(s): Pärt is an Estonian composer of classical and sacred music. Since the late 1970s, Pärt has worked in a minimalist style that employs his self-invented compositional technique, tintinnabuli. His music is in part inspired by Gregorian chant. His major works include the violin concerto Tabula Rasa (1977), Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1977), Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen (1988) and The Beatitudes (1991). Pärt has been the most performed living composer in the world for 5 consecutive years.

Pärt was born in Paide, Järva County, Estonia. A prolonged struggle with Soviet officials led him to emigrate with his wife and their two sons in 1980. He lived first in Vienna, where he took Austrian citizenship and then relocated to Berlin, Germany, in 1981. He returned to Estonia around the turn of the 21st century and now lives alternately in Berlin and Tallinn. He speaks fluent German and has German citizenship as a result of living in Germany since 1981.

Life: Pärt was born in Paide, Järva County, Estonia and was raised by his mother and stepfather in Rakvere in northern Estonia. He began to experiment with the top and bottom notes of the family’s piano as the middle register was damaged. Pärt’s musical education began at age seven. He began attending music school in Rakvere, where his family lived. By the time he reached his early teenage years, Pärt was writing his own compositions. His first serious study came in 1954 at the Tallinn Music Middle School, but less than a year later he temporarily abandoned it to fulfill military service, playing oboe and percussion in the army band. After his service he attended the Tallinn Conservatory, where he studied composition with Heino Eller and it was said of him, “he just seemed to shake his sleeves and the notes would fall out”. As a student, he produced music for film and the stage. During the 1950s, he also completed his first vocal composition, the cantata Meie aed (‘Our Garden’) for children’s choir and orchestra. He graduated in 1963. From 1957 to 1967, he worked as a sound producer for Estonian radio.

Pärt was criticized by Tikhon Khrennikov in 1962, for employing serialism in Nekrolog (1960), the first 12-tone music written in Estonia, which exhibited his “susceptibility to foreign influences”. But nine months later he won First Prize in a competition of 1,200 works, awarded by the all-Union Society of Composers, indicating the inability of the Soviet regime to agree consistently on what was permissible. In the 1970s, Pärt studied medieval and Renaissance music instead of focusing on his own composition. About this same time, he converted from Lutheranism to the Russian Orthodox faith.

In 1980, after a prolonged struggle with Soviet officials, he was allowed to emigrate with his wife and their two sons. He lived first in Vienna, where he took Austrian citizenship and then relocated to Berlin, Germany, in 1981. He returned to Estonia around the turn of the 21st century and now lives alternately in Berlin and Tallinn. He speaks fluent German and has German citizenship as a result of living in Germany since 1981.

In 2014 The Daily Telegraph described Pärt as possibly “the world’s greatest living composer” and “by a long way, Estonia’s most celebrated export”. But when asked how Estonian he felt his music to be, Pärt replied: “I don’t know what is Estonian… I don’t think about these things.” Unlike many of his fellow Estonian composers, Pärt never found inspiration in the country’s epic poem, Kalevipoeg, even in his early works. Pärt said “My Kalevipoeg is Jesus Christ.”

Composer Examples:

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