NOTEworthy October 4

Spiegel im Spiegel – Arvo Part

This piece comes from one of the most significant voices in Eatern European music of the modern era – Arvo Part. Part’s compositional history is one that I find particularly fascinating, because he is one of the few composers whose different stylistic periods are so easy to hear, and so clearly reflect personal growth and change.

Part’s early musical career took place during a particularly Avant Garde, less tonal era of music. His works were not easy to listen to, and utilized the twelve-tone row system. This idea of organizing music means that you have to play all 12 notes of a musical octave before you can play the first note again. It was popular in the mid-20th Century and, personally, I find it far more interesting to talk about than to listen to. HERE is an example of one of Part’s pieces from this era…I think you’ll get the picture after about 10 seconds…

Part experimented in these modern styles and was incredibly successful. He was one of the leading composers of film music in Estonia at this time, and was one of a very small number of Estonian composers whose works were performed outside of the country. After years of writing in this style, however, Part just stopped.

In 1968, he renounced this style of composing music, and didn’t compose again for eight years.

When he broke his compositional silence in 1976, Part was a completely different composer.

His works, rather than being muddied by immense complexity, were incredibly and intentionally simple from a compositional standpoint. Now, in many pieces, instead of using the 12 tone-row, a part wouldn’t sing more than 3 notes. Period. In others, like “Spiegel im Spiegel,” he writes melodies and harmonies so simple, a beginner could play them. In a way, he is the compositional mirror of his old self. He called this new style “tintinnabulli” meaning “little bells,” and the essence of this style is simplicity and purity.

I find it interesting how music critics and musicians talk about this new style of Part’s. Almost instinctively, rather than praise Part for creating something that transcended us, something that was beautiful and simple and pure, musicians and critics praise Part for how he “creates an original duality of voices, the course and logic of which are defined by strict, even complicated mathematical formulas.” They praise how he “has given a new meaning to the horizontal and vertical axis of music, and broadened our perception of tonal and modal music in its widest sense.”

Why couldn’t it just be beautiful? Why did there have to be a complicated reason to be moved by this music?

It sounds a lot like how we talk about God sometimes, doesn’t it?

I think we sometimes struggle to let ourselves love something that is simple. Maybe it is because, subconsciously, we think simplicity is for children, and complexity is for grown-ups. Maybe it’s because we want to seem smart.

I find such inspiration in the music and story of Arvo Part, because I see such bravery in how he allowed himself to be simple again. We can be simple again, too. In fact, we are called to it. And though we may think that our hard-lined theologies and apologetics are what draw us close to God, the hardest theology to truly master may just be that of a simple, childlike faith.

Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.
Luke 18:17

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
Matthew 18:1-5

Andy Eaton
Director of Music
First Presbyterian Church