Arvo Pärt: The Sacred and Religious in Music

Issue 1709

14 October 2017

Arvo Pärt was born September 11, 1935, in Paide, Estonia, at that time part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Pärt began to learn to play the piano and other musical instruments at an early age. Following his military service, he attended the Tallinn Conservatory. The professors there were strongly influenced by the music of the Russian composers Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. 

His formation was typical for composers of the late 19th century and early 20th century, but a job as a sound technician gave him the chance to listen to contemporary compositions that were rarely performed or transmitted. Hence, he gained particularly wide-ranging and unusual experience for a musician working in one of the Warsaw Treaty countries.

In the 1960s and 1970s Pärt’s musical journey took a turn, and he made a pilgrimage back through the history of music, back to Bach, to Palestrina, and even further still to medieval composers and Gregorian chant. At the same time he nurtured the roots of his own Catholic spirituality, taking particular inspiration from ancient monks and discovering an ecumenical vocation toward the Orthodox Church, which he admired for its special care of the liturgy. Gradually these styles influenced his compositions and he is considered a leading member of the holy minimalist school.

Like many intellectuals in Russia in the Soviet era, Pärt clashed with the regime and eventually emigrated, first to Austria and then to Germany where he lives today. Pärt is probably best known as the creator of the musical style “tintinnabuli.”

The author, Giovanni Arledler, is a writer for La Civiltà Cattolica.

This article is available in the October edition of La Civiltà Cattolica English edition.