Exploring contemporary classical composition

Arvo Pärt was born in Paide, Estonia in 1935 and was exposed to music, especially the piano, from an early age. He experimented with the only working registers of his family’s piano, singing the notes of the keys that were missing. This experimentation led him to study for two periods at the Tallinn Music Middle School. The first period was cut short by his need to enlist in the military, aged 19, for national service where he played oboe and percussion for the military band. He was released from the military due to illness and returned to the Tallinn School to continue his studies in composition, generally in the neo-classical style.

After graduating from the Tallinn School in 1963 (under Heino Eller) he continued to work as a sound producer for Estonian radio (with which he had been involved since 1957) which gave him access to work writing a great deal of soundtrack music.

Pärt’s early compositions were still heavily influenced by neoclassicism and the work of composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bartók. After exposure to the work of Arnold Schoenberg, Pärt began experimenting with serialism and Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method. Although this broadened Pärt’s experience and laid the foundation for his own musical developments, it put him at odds with the Soviet political system which was trying to control all aspects of artistic expression at the time. This led to the Soviet censors prohibiting the performance of his work, culminating with the banning of his 1968 work “Credo”.

After a decade of public silence Pärt made the decision to leave Estonia in 1979 and moved to Vienna for a year before settling in Berlin. It was during this period of silence that Pärt began exploring early Western music in earnest, in particular Plainsong and Gregorian Chant. This, combined with his exposure to the distinctive timbre of Russian bells that would have been prominent after his conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church helped to shape the sound that defined the second and most prominent period of his compositional career, Tintinnabuli (Tintinnabulation).

Tintinnabuli is Pärt’s compositional technique of distilling the “complex and confusing in a search for unity”. The technique is characterised by the use of two primary parts or “voices”. The first part, the “Tintinnabular voice” arpeggiates the tonic triad while the second part moves in diatonic steps.

Two early works which display Tintinnabuli are the 1976 work “Für Alina” and the 1978 piece “Spiegel im Spiegel“.

Für Alina, originally for piano in B minor is a short piece dedicated to the daughter of a friend who was leaving to study in London. The score shows no time signature and no direct instruction to tempo. Spiegel im Spiegel, an F Major composition for single piano and violin in 6/4 time is a more extensive work which has been used extensively in film and television.

These pieces are attractive to me both as music in their own right and as a proof of concept of Pärt’s quasi-mathematical approach to composition. It seems that he can take a musical theme and with the Tintinnabuli method, allow the music to almost create itself by flowing organically.


Forrestal, J. (2011) Two tangled golden threads: Arvo Pärt, his tintinnabulation technique, and his Berliner Messe [online]. www.academia.edu. Available from: http://www.academia.edu/1800969/Two_Tangled_Golden_Threads_Arvo_Part_his_Tintinnabulation_technique_and_his_Berliner_Messe [accessed 03/01/2014]

Hermann, Dr C. ON THE MUSIC OF ARVO PÄRT [online]. www.musicolog.com. Available from: http://www.musicolog.com/part_lenten.asp#.Usgqwft5FnQ [accessed 03/01/2014]

Kennedy, M. and Kennedy, J. (2007) Oxford concise dictionary of music. Fifth edition. Oxford. Oxford university press.

Pinkerton, David E (1996). Biography [online]. www.arvopart.org. Available from: www.arvopart.org/bio.html [accessed 03/01/2014]

Quinn, P. Arvo Pärt [online]. http://www.Classical-Music.com. Available from: http://www.classical-music.com/topic/arvo-part [accessed: 03/01/2014]

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