Notes for: July 11, 2017
Mozart’s Classicism meets Arvo Pärt’s “spiritual-minimalism” in Pärt’s affecting transcription of the Adagio from Mozart’s early piano sonata in F Major, K. 280. Pärt composed this work in memory of the Russian violinist Oleg Kagan, a close friend who was a devotee of Mozart’s music. That Pärt himself admired Mozart is no surprise given the transparency and pared-down eloquence of Pärt’s own music, in which every note and every silence has meaning.
Born in Estonia, Pärt spent his early career writing music for Estonian radio, theater, and film. He was a member in good standing of the Soviet musical avant-garde, and for many years he experimented with a variety of 20th-century techniques and styles. In 1960 he wrote “Nekrolog,” Estonia’s first twelve-tone composition; Soviet authorities promptly condemned it as “avant-garde bourgeois music.” In the late 1960s he again ran into trouble when officials banned his choral work “Credo,” which quoted Bach and invoked the New Testament. Feeling artistically and spiritually adrift, Pärt withdrew from the public and spent the next eight years studying Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. By the time he reemerged, he had left the world of atonal and serial music and had found a new style, a new voice, and a new system of composition.
Pärt called his new system “tintinnabuli,” from the Latin word for bells. He introduced it in 1976 with a strikingly simple piano piece, “Für Alina,” which is built from just two opposed lines: one a melody, the other, notes from a harmonizing triad. “The three notes of a triad are like bells,” Pärt explained; “and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.” He also noted that the piece necessitated what he described as “a need to concentrate on each sound so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.” A year later he wrote “Tabula Rasa,” a piece for two violins, string orchestra, and prepared piano that brought him wide fame. Pärt has gone on to create works of eloquence and spiritual profundity that have made him the most frequently performed classical composer year after year.
Mozart’s touching Adagio – with its transparently beautiful melody, moments of silence, and sparing but effective use of dissonant minor seconds that add to the poignancy – is a good fit for Pärt, who treats Mozart’s work with respect while adding his own distinctive touches. He opens up Mozart’s score by distributing the piano part among the three instruments. He also adds a brief introduction, an even briefer coda, and occasional commentary, all of which highlight the dissonances, the pauses, and the depths of feeling in Mozart’s music. The result is a heartfelt tribute, crafted from a young Mozart’s moving work.