Notes on Te Deum by Arvo Pärt

by Artistic Director Dr. Susan McMane


“I had to draw this music gently out of silence and emptiness.” – Arvo Pärt

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Ragnar Bohlin, conductor, performed Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum last spring and this note by Steven Ziegler and James M. Keller appeared in the program: “With his stark, meditative, and largely sacred compositions, Arvo Pärt (b.1935) may not immediately spring to mind when one thinks of a “popular” composer. But according to Bachtrack, a website that tabulates performances of composers’ works, Pärt ranks number one among living composers.” And according to the website Estonian World, Pärt (an Estonian) has held this title for the past seven years. One reason for the appeal of Arvo Pärt’s music might be its ability to help us cope with our overstimulated modern, busy world. Pärt’s musical realm is spiritual. It slows us down to a place where time is transcended, sound mixes with silence, and outbursts of praise slowly arise from the texture.

Arvo Pärt was born in Paide, Estonia, then part of the Soviet Union. After graduation from the Tallinn Conservatory, he composed in a neo-classical style with some success. Despite having little exposure to what was happening in the Western world, he began writing in serial techniques in the 1960s, but after he wrote his Credo (1968), Pärt abandoned serialism and stopped composing entirely for a while. During his self-imposed silence, he made a thorough study of plainchant and early polyphony which became his source of inspiration. The sound he sought

reminded him of the way in which the sound of a bell lingers in the air after it has rung, so he called this new style tintinnabuli (the ringing of bells)In this technique, the linear, step-wise movement of one line are combined with the vertical harmonies made from a single triad in the other. He writes, “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note—or a silent beat or a moment of silence—comforts me. I work with very few elements, with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials, with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”

Pärt’s Te Deum (1984-85) was written in his tintinnabuli style for three choirs (male chorus, female chorus, and mixed chorus), string orchestra, prepared piano, and wind harp. The prepared piano functions as tuned percussion, while the wind harp serves as a Byzantine ison or drone. (The ison at these performances is a recording of an actual wind harp, sent by the publisher with the rental parts.)

Most scholars believe the Te Deum text was written at the beginning of the fifth-century. It is a century Christian hymn of praise still recited daily at Matins, the early morning prayer service. Many composers have set this text such as Handel, Berlioz, Verdi, Britten, Kodály and Bruckner. However, Pärt’s score is more in line with the hymn’s chant origins. The composer noted in 1993, that he sought to create a mood “that could be infinite in time, by delicately removing one piece—one particle of time—out of the flow of infinity. I had to draw this music gently out of silence and emptiness.”

Each of the Te Deum’s twenty-nine verses is first introduced in a chant-like manner by one or two sections of the chorus, then repeated, either in a harmonized version by the mixed chorus, or as a related meditation for string orchestra. A seamless thread is woven from one verse to another by the ever-present drone, providing stability and reinforcing the home key of D minor. Pärt uses excursions to D major for a bit of “light”, but inevitably returns to D minor. The drone sometimes moves to the note A, creating a sense of tension, but always comes back to D. For contrast, Pärt alternates between instrumental and choral sections. The massed forces of strings and voices only come together at three points in the piece, underscoring dramatic moments in the text.

The magical and mysterious ending of Te Deum evokes a sense of tranquility and hope as the chorus repeats the words “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” (“Holy, Holy, Holy”) diminishing on each repetition into silence.

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