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In ‘Spirit’ and in Truth: Rhythm and Time in the Music of Arvo Pärt as related to Medieval Polyphony and Philosophy

PHILIP RICE ITURGICAL CHANT IN Medieval Europe progressed directly from the speaking (and later the intoning) of religious text.1 The variations in pitch and rhythm, thus, grew directly out of the way in which speech occurs, and more importantly, the way in which it is most easily perceived and understood. As more complex polyphony developed out of harmonized chant near the end of the middle ages, a set of rhythmic modes was developed as a method of keeping track of how the individual parts should line up rhythmically in the absence of a rhythmically mature notational system. More than 400 years later, Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, reevaluating his musical worldview, developed a ‘new’ system of composing, which he called “tintinnabuli,” influenced and informed by the ‘spirit’ of early music.2 His setting of texts bears a strong resemblance to early forms of polyphony, and in this paper I will make a case that the rhythmic structures found in his music are related to the early polyphonic schools not only in ‘spirit,’ but also in structure and execution. Probably not incidentally, the path of Pärt’s career is marked by recession from society followed by epiphany and intellectual and spiritual rebirth—a pattern which typifies mystics of the medieval period (and any period, for that matter), a fact which is likely not coincidental to the reality that his music strongly resembles music of medieval mystics, especially in light of the fact that Pärt claims to believe in the discovery of absolute truth.3 I will suggest that in mimicking the medieval attitude and approach in his compositions, Pärt was (knowingly or unknowingly) led to the same inevitable set of rules, methods, and attitudes as medieval composers.


Jeremy Yudkin, Music in Medieval Europe (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1989), 43. Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 78. 3 Ibid, 65, Hillier quotes Pärt, “How thoroughly has the author-composer perceived, not his own present, but the totality of life, its joys, worries, and mysteries? […] Art has to deal with eternal questions, not just sorting out the issues of today.”


just as the scalar modes were a way to indicate the most common pitch relationships in the absence of more elegant notational elements. The six rhythmic modes (which in no way correspond to the seven scalar modes) are clearly defined by Jeremy Yudkin in his book on medieval music: Figure A: The rhythmic modes. There were three distinct kinds of medieval polyphony. and bears the strongest resemblance to tintinnabuli. 366. 367. we must first have a clear understanding of the way in which the medieval polyphony of the Notre Dame School was structured. and the second form—perhaps the most well known. the lower voice is always a traditional chant tune. and how the methods employed served to make up entire compositions in multiple voices. The composition of discant was governed by rhythmic “modes. but is instead sung 4 5 Yudkin. called organum—also uses a familiar tune as the bottom voice (or “cantus firmus”). being composed of a 1:1 ratio of notes (that is. and to understand this fully. it was strictly homophonic). the modes were devised as a way to keep track of how two or three (or sometimes four) voices lined up rhythmically. an investigation of the other two chant forms is in order. in the absence of a good system of notating complex rhythms.4 The rhythmic modes are essentially a set of six possible rhythmic figures of two or three notes. and can be seen as an elemental typificaton of common rhythmic figures. such as accidentals or key signatures.. Ibid.” As mentioned above. the first of which is called discant. . In discant.2 Rhythm of Medieval Polyphony To begin.5 How these modes interacted with the declamation of text is a more complex matter. much the same way Pärt’s method of ‘tintinnabuli’ (which will be discussed later) uses multiple voices to create specific kind of phrases (in time) and harmonies (in space).

139. while a florid. All three of the aforementioned styles were combined in larger compositions with different sections using different techniques of polyphonic writing. Within this hierarchy. The more dissonant the interval. David Fenwick Wilson. Helm. regardless of their level of dissonance. though most historians agree that it should be done with respect for the text. 1206 (W2 ). The last type of polyphony is called copula and is a combination of organum and discant.. the shorter the note. A brief look at early motets of the late medieval period using rhythmic modes. . fols. The rhythm of organum is not governed by the rhythmic modes. reveals that stressed syllables usually get longer note values: Figure B: O Maria. Patrem omnipoténtem etc. melismatic line is sung above each note. there are other qualifiers due to distance between notes. a major seventh is considered less dissonant than a major second and so forth.8 a practice that was surely not coincidental to the fact that a vast majority of Latin words (in ecclesiastical pronunciation) have a stress on the penultimate syllable (Credo in unum Deum.).. 125-25’7 It was also common practice for the penultimate note of the phrase to be elongated. The extended cantus firmus voice is present as in organum. 6 7 Ibid. 369. for example. however. 368. Herzog August-Bibl. 8 Yudkin. (New York: Schirmer Books. rather than the degree of dissonance.6 with the intensity of dissonance from consonant to dissonant being as follows: octave/unison – fourth/fifth – third/sixth – second/seventh. but is instead determined by the dissonance or the consonance created by the interaction of the parts.3 with very extended note-values. How the rhythm of a free chant line is executed is a matter of some debate. but this time rhythm of the upper florid voice is governed by the rhythmic modes. maris stella—Veritatem (Single-texted three-voice motet) Wolfenbüttel. 1990). Music of the Middle Ages.

set it aside. frustrated with the serialist and aleatoric style of his college years. but simply by doing it—a completely organic approach: Or he would quickly read a text. and the entire piece is played over a drone which decays away in the bass register from a single attack at the beginning of the piece. The piece has no rhythmic indications other than short and long (black and white notes). that the upper voice carries a melody. that is. but assimilating it bit by bit. stopped composing for nearly a decade (1968-76) in order to find a new way of composing music. . and then immediately write music to mirror what he had just read. and the bottom voice plays (or sings) the notes in a given triad. As was the case in Für Alina. The piece is the first example of ‘tintinnabuli’ not for its rhythmic qualities. three on occasion. much of Pärt’s tintinnabuli compositions use only two rhythmic values.10 What emerged after eight years was a simple piece in two voices for piano called Für Alina. short” due to the fact that the music never exhibits a ‘pulse’ in such a way that it is easy to perceive that a note has sustained for four as opposed to three or two or five (etc. From the example below. while the left hand always plays the nearest pitch in a B-minor triad. Ibid. aptly titled Arvo Pärt. 74. we actually see five note values: dotted whole. the effect is still “long. and quarter. it is clear that this is not the case due to the fact that there is no discernable meter. this is the essence of tintinnabuli. (medium). in the Magnificat. or any 9 10 Hillier. In cases where there are more values.”9 and he explains that Pärt’s focus was at least partly devoted to acquiring a higher understanding of the way to successfully set text to music—not by reading about it or studying other composers’ work. 74. the right hand plays a chantlike melodic line. not artificially. which might give one the idea that an overall quarter-note pulse would emerge in the listener’s ear. it will suffice to say that Pärt. pulling it gradually to the surface in such a way that it might become second nature. half. Hillier describes this time as characterized by “[seeking] to enter a different sense of time.4 Tintinnabuli To describe the entire process by which Arvo Pärt reinvented his musical voice would be to recount the first half of Paul Hillier’s book. For example. In this way he sought to steep himself in a new tradition. whole. dotted half. but because of its specific harmonic construction. usually whichever note is nearest to the melody note. For the purposes of this essay.) beats.. however.

then why should we listen?).5 other reference point from which to decide when there might be a release or an attack. and that every stressed syllable is given a long note value. where it would seem totally appropriate to give all three syllables of ‘Dominum’ equal note-values. 1. 10/4 etc. and would certainly destroy the sense of declamation intended by a composer whose study involved the most organic text-setting possible. and the rhythmic modes? To assess the values or intensity of dissonance in Pärt’s music is essentially a null point.” and certainly not “exactly one quarter note” longer or shorter. Magnificat 11 A survey of the Magnificat reveals that the entire rhythmic structure of the composition is completely governed by the text. a dotted whole note. 11 Arvo Pärt. . particularly when dealing with metered text. and a dotted half note is “a little longer” or “a little shorter. We find that all barlines fall at the ends of words. The parallels between Pärt’s setting of text and the typical settings of discant and copula are immediately apparent: stressed syllables get longer note values. Magnificat. The elongation of consonant versus dissonant tones (such as in organum) cannot be fairly estimated because dissonance in Pärt’s music arises naturally out of the interaction between arpeggiated accompaniment and melodic cantus. The difference between a whole note. (Vienna: Universal Edition. would be nearly unintelligible. and unstressed syllables are given short ones. directors almost invariably simply cue each note—dividing up the ‘measures’ (which are really ‘words’) into units of 7/4. 1989). it is possible to assign rhythmic modes to sections of Pärt’s music. However. in my experience performing Pärt’s music in choirs. 6/4. But what about organum and dissonances. 4/4. and this is one area in which his music departs in similarity from the construction of medieval polyphony (if there were nothing new about it. Figure C: Pärt. In fact. Even the final cadence of the piece. Pärt gives ‘mi’ (the unstressed syllable) a ‘slightly shorter’ note—a dotted whole rather than a double-whole.

Later. Miserere.oxfordmusiconline. Arvo Pärt has indeed composed a setting of the Dies Irae. however. we are dealing with something somewhat more complex—the soprano and alto lines are. we find a unique setting of the tetrameter stresses. (Vienna: Universal Edition. To our fortune. 1989). Of course. but exemplifies Pärt’s remarkable ability to use ancient techniques to create engaging musical works in the modern day. In it. here. just half as fast. ensemble. is the Dies Irae. One example of an oftset liturgical text.” In Grove Music Online. and organ. In the upper voices. another rhythmic technique used in the composition of late medieval motets13 and which is strongly related to organum and copula in that it elongates the cantus note-values. with the tenors and basses in augmentation. we also find a remarkable execution of augmentation. 2010). It is just this kind of text. http://www. the same pitches and rhythms as the tenor and bass lines. Oxford Music Online. so not surprisingly these are a rarity in both the music of Pärt and in medieval polyphony. allowing the Arvo Pärt. 13 12 . the roles reverse. which alternates between first and second mode every other line: Figure D: Pärt. in fact. Miserere 12 The use of mode 1 is probably the most common method to set trochees in late medieval motets with metered text. which is in trochaic (accessed November 1. A). 5.6 It is uncommon to find metered poetry in liturgical Latin texts. “Augmentation (ii). Roger Bullivant. that allows the clearest analasys of how the rhythmic modes interact with text (as in Fig. The use of second mode is more uncommon. as part of his Miserere for soloists. which does follow a kind of poetic meter. choir.

7 two groups to end simultaneously—a perhaps painfully obvious. 4. secure. the stressed syllable would be medium. we actually find a massive mensuration canon. Although the three temporal planes do not ever intersect (that is. and the Evangelist existing strictly in ‘real’ time. each syllable would be medium. It should be noted. and “Christ” three times as slow. Otherwise all syllables are short. In the last word of a phrase ending with a colon or full stop. each syllable would be long. while the other parts are temporally more superfluous and ephemeral—much the same way that shorter-valued organum ornamentations over a chant cantus firmus bear less importance than the original (and ostensibly more timeless) chant. 155). that with all the instrumental parts taken into consideration. the stressed syllable would be medium. Pärt taps into the not only the psycho-philosophical attitudes of the medieval period. 127-128. In the last word of a phrase ending with a comma. more commonly referred to simply as Passio. 3. but he also draws on the technique of lengthening those notes which are most important.14 The use of hierarchical rhythmic layering as we have just seen. In it. 2. 14 . Pärt’s choice to assign Christ the longest values is perhaps indicative of Christ’s words being a cantus firmus—the most grounded. For our purposes.15 The system is made especially interesting by the fact that the different characters in the passion play operate on different temporal continuums (that is.” (Hillier. is used frequently by Pärt. In the first word of a new sentence (or phrase beginning after a colon). however. he sets up a system of his own rhythmic devices based on short. and long. the three characters do not sing simultaneously). each one progressively doubling the length of the notes so that the slowest is 16 times longer than the fastest. with the same descending A minor pattern “heard simultaneously in five tempi. 5. medium. perhaps most remarkably in Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem. with the “Evangelist” singing at one speed. 15 Hillier. The signification of the device is perhaps obvious—Christ existing in a state of the most tranquility and timelessness. yet brilliantly executed device. we are only examining those voices that are singing text. which is outlined by Hillier as follows: 1. “Pilate” exactly twice as slow. In the last word in a phrase ending with a question mark. different speeds). and absolute. In this way.

in a state of perpetuity. which are popularly typified by their meditative. (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. deeply rooted in medieval and Christian thought. the universe. Medieval Christian leaders. unconfined by past. Anne H. This type of thinking is very much in line with the perception of time in a spiritual sense during the medieval period. King-Lenzmeier. existing in a state of “being.” rather than within our temporal continuum. and one which perhaps deserves further consideration. Erik Christensen describes several types of qualitative perceptions of time experienced in music.16 This idea of “timelessness” is neither new nor secular. We know that a child and a plant grow and that a flower opens and turns and closes itself. believed in a kind of “divine simplicity” that characterizes God by his timeless nature. The music of medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen (whose monastic lifestyle isn’t so unlike Pärt’s virtual monasticism) wrote music which bears a striking resemblance to Pärt’s tintinnabuli. and in fact agrees strikingly with the composer’s own thoughts on music philosophy and time. The Musical Timespace (Aalborg: Aalborg University Press. xvi. one of which he calls the “time of being. and is reflected in the monophonic chants and simple polyphonic styles that characterize the period. or future events. Thomas Aquinas. Augustine of Hippo. The comparison between Hildegard and Pärt is an interesting one.17 This philosophy is an apt description of Pärt’s musical style. present. particularly St. 49. Hildegard of Bingen: An Integrated Vision. admittedly. so that every blade of grass would be as Erik Christensen. as quoted below from a masterclass taught by the composer: I’d say that I had a need to…I’d call it neutrality…a need to concentrate on each sound. and living beings. (who. and is characterized by the same kind of effectual departure from normal time. almost static affect.8 Tranquility and Divine Simplicity In his book.” 17 16 . but we do not perceive the minute changes constituting these processes. Lenzmeier describes Hildegard’s life as being characterized by “a mature simplicity […a] spiritual journey from the simple through the complex and returning to simplicity. 1996). The Musical Timespace.” Christensen describes this type of temporal experience with words like “timelessness” and “eternity. St.” and explains that it is similar to the way we perceive nature: […]time of being is recalled in the experience of nature. in fact. but whose philosophies helped shape the thinking of that period) famously suggested that God must exist outside time. and is. lived somewhat before what is commonly considered the medieval period. 2001).

19 . Pärt’s desire to express the aesthetic of simplicity and tranquility in his music (and perhaps in all things) can be summed up in his own words. and perhaps even greater universal (divine?) forces. almost). human intuition. ArvoPart. 2007. and the idea of ‘tranquility. Directed by Dorian Supin (Juxtapositions. DVD. 2005). his personal philosophy and worldview. It is fascinating.”19 Conclusions This paper has sought to focus on the structural similarities of Pärt’s music and the music of an earlier. however (titillating. The lack of definite meter in much of his music creates a temporal experience much more akin to meditation or a loss of the perception of time than the experiential and goal-based affect of more traditional western music. March. […] It could be like a break on the radio.arvopart. more mysterious time. Such signals sometimes sound as if they lasted an entire life.18 Much can be said about Pärt’s approach to the philosophy of time. The similarities between his music and the music of antiquity go much further than simply rhythmic considerations. 2010). and the nuances of his inner dialogue. http://www. to think that the similarity between medieval music and his approach to rhythm could arise out of a natural progression from “Arvo Pärt wins Denmark's Sonning music prize”.html (accessed November important as a flower. “Tranquility is always more complete than music. and his compositional process must be reserved for a longer discussion. 18 Arvo Pärt: 24 Preludes and a Fugue.’ but the best evidence is found in the qualitative experience of actually listening to his music.

2010). King-Lenzmeier. Clarkson. 2001. Oxford Music Online. .10 FURTHER READING Bullivant. Edward. “Musical Declamation and Poetic Rhythm in an Early Layer of Notre Dame Conductus. ———. Music in Medieval Europe. New York: Oxford University Press. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall. Janet. no. “Arvo Pärt and the New Simplicity. Columbia University. Arvo Pärt. "Augmentation (ii). 2001.” Saint Paul Sunday October 11. Maddocks.publicradio. 1998. 1970).. McGlaughlin. Jeremy. (Ph.D. 3 (1979): 383-407. Berkeley 1977. Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age.oxfordmusiconline. Hillier. Knapp. Fiona. http://www. Nowacki. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. On the Nature of Medieval Song: The Declamation of Plainchant and the Lyric Structure of the Fourteenth-Century Motet. Bill. Anne H. Report of the Twelfth Congress. “The Syntactical Analysis of Plainchant. Basel: Bärenreiter. G. Roger.” Early Music History: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Music. New York: Doubleday. 6 (January 1986):193.” Journal of the American Musicological Society music/53687 (accessed November 2. “Text Declamation as a Determinant of Melodic Form in the Old Roman Eighth-mode Tracts.” International Musicological Society. 1989. 1981." In Grove Music Online.htm (accessed November 9. diss. Yudkin. 2010).org/features/9810_part/index. Austin Elliott. Hildegard of Bingen: An Integrated Vision. http://saintpaulsunday. Paul. 1997.

Vienna: Universal Edition. 1990. 1992. Vienna: Universal Edition. (rev. Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem. 2002). 1989. Magnificat. Miserere. . Vienna: Universal Edition. David Fenwick. Vienna: Universal Edition. ———.11 MUSICAL SCORES Pärt. New York: Schirmer Books. Arvo. ———. 1989. Wilson. Berliner Messe. Music of the Middle Ages. ———. 1990.