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Estonia's Singing Revolution (photo:

A new, old kind of music

Do you like Björk and her views on music? Well, maybe a good introduction to the music of Arvo Pärt, before seeing it performed live by the Hastings Philharmonic Choir, is to watch an interview she had with Pärt on his music, writes HOT’s Chris Cormack.

Björk interviews Arvo Pärt.

What is clear from this enigmatic interview is that the key to Pärt’s music is religion. But what kind of religion is it? The Guardian describes it as “holy minimalism – a reverie of simplicity that luxuriates in the pure sounds of tintinnabulatory tonality, which sounds a corrective (for some) and sentimental (for others) note of archaism in a world of chaotic modernity.” A bit of a mouthful!

Arvo Pärt.

Arvo Pärt was born and grew up in Estonia, which is described as one of the least religious countries in the world, in terms of church membership – and in a recent poll, when asked whether religion played an important part in their life, only 20% of Estonians said ‘Yes’. Pärt started life as a Lutheran in a country whose communist system preached atheism. He converted to the orthodox church and married a Jewish woman. His Berliner Messe, which will be sung by the Hastings Philharmonic Choir, was commissioned by the German Catholic Church in 1990, when Pärt was exiled in Germany and Estonia was in the middle of its ‘Singing Revolution’,  which bloodlessly removed Estonia’s bonds with the Soviet Union.

The Singing Revolution.

It is well known that religion played an important part in the throwing off of the communist soviet yoke in Eastern Europe, but the role of singing is less well known in the West. The Singing Revolution is a commonly used name for events between 1987 and 1991 that led to the restoration of the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Baltic states have a strong singing tradition, and in June 1988, during the Singing Revolution days, up to 300,000 people attended the Night Song Festival (Laulupidu) to sing national songs and hymns that were strictly forbidden.

Matt Zoller Seitz wrote in the New York Times: “Imagine the scene in Casablanca in which the French patrons sing La Marseillaise in defiance of the Germans, then multiply its power by a factor of thousands, and you’ve only begun to imagine the force of ‘The Singing Revolution’.”

Arvo Pärt’s musical revolution began earlier with the premiere of his work, Credo, in 1969. The piece saw the light of day mainly because its conductor, Neeme Järvi, didn’t show the score to the Estonian composers’ union before its premiere. Pärt was enough of a pain in the side of the authorities to be allowed exile to the West by 1980. During this period, Pärt went through a kind of musical damascene conversion that produced the inspiring religious music that we associate with the composer today.

To listen to the music, it is strangely timeless, archaic and modern at the same time. One hears the strong influence of plainchant – and Gregorian and Byzantine chant, both melodic and harmonic,  that is associated with church services. One also hears the randomness of church bells, liturgical bells, designated tintinnabulation, based on three-note chord patterns. Then one hears silence, a pregnant silence, which encourages reflection and meditation.

All this is familiar for people who have attended church services, but also strangely new and exciting. What kind of religion is it? It is catholic in the sense of being universal, and enjoys an untainted purity and lack of dogma. One of  Pärt’s works is called Tabula rasa or the ‘clean slate’. This is the kind of purity we are talking about – the purity of the child untainted by the wiles of civilised human life. This resonates with Chinese philosophy in their concept of the ‘uncarved block’. Yes, catholic and universal.

If more conventional religious music is to your taste, then the Hastings Philharmonic Choir still has much to offer at their November concert: firstly Mozart’s Solemn Vespers features the magnificent Laudate Dominum and the Oratorio de Noêl by Camille Saint-Saëns is a brilliant revelation, if like me you had not heard it before!

The Hastings Philharmonic Choir and Ensemble Orquestra present Mozart, Saint-Saëns and Arvo Pärt – conducted by Marcio da Silva with Richard Leach, organist, and Cecilia de Maria, harp. Saturday 15 November 2014 at 7.00pm, St Clement’s Church, High Street, Old Town, Hastings TN34 3ES.

Tickets from Hastings Information Centre and IMAGEN Gallery, Claremont, £15 each (£13 concessions and £3 under 17 years). Tickets also at the door, subject to availability.

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Posted 09:21 Saturday, Nov 8, 2014 In: Music & Sound

1 Comment

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  1. Chris Cormack


    The concert also includes an orchestral piece by Debussy:

    Danse sacrée et Danse profane for harp and strings with Cecilia Sultana de Maria on the harp

    Written during the period that Debussy was composing his most ambitious orchestral work, La Mer, and a few years after the opera Pelleas et Melisande.

    According to New Millenium Records, the Danse sacrée with its pastel transparency, modal harmonies, and aura of antiquity mark it as being related to the opera. It begins with a quiet but stately unison melody to which the harp responds with a theme of arpeggiated chords. The harp and strings then meander peacefully through land­scapes of parallel harmonies.

    The Danse profane reflects the designation “profane,” not as in the sense of profanity or obscenity, but profane in the sense of a love of nature and earthly existence.

    Comment by Chris Cormack — Thursday, Nov 13, 2014 @ 11:05

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