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Music, words and spirit

Music, words and spirit

Writing about music is as pointless as it is inevitable.

Those brave enough to attempt it are dragged either into a highly technical black hole, in which talk of augmented sevenths and dissonant counterpoints leave the musically–untutored reader cold and confused, or alternatively into a quagmire of simile and subjectivity, in which one thing “seems to be saying” this or another “is as if the composer was conveying” that. As the old riposte has it, if I could have said it, I wouldn’t have sung, composed, painted, or danced it. So why bother trying to say it?

And yet, we do try to say it. We say it because we can’t help wanting to talk about music that moves us. And we say it because we know that what such music does and means to us is as real as physical pain or a love letter. And we say it because words are what we turn to in order to convey meaning. And so, in spite of ourselves and in spite of the ultimate futility of the exercise, we turn to words and we write about music.

Given these constraints – and we haven’t even thrown into the mix the extra challenge of writing about sacred music – Peter Bouteneff has done a fine job in writing about the music of Arvo Pärt

Pärt, for those still to hear his name or music, is the most performed living composer in world. Sometimes named among the so–called ‘Holy Minimalists’, alongside John Tavener, Henryk Górecki and Sofia Gubaidulina, Pärt has produced a body of work since 1976, which is widely (although by no means universally) admired for its simplicity, elegance, and overwhelming spiritual power.

That year was not when he started composing but when he re–started, emerging from an eight–year self–imposed (near) silence, with a new style, dubbed Tintinnabulation by his wife Nora. Estonian by birth, Part’s early works were shaped by serialism, which did not endear him to the Soviet authorities, a relationship that was not improved by his explosive 1968 composition Credo which combined several religious texts in a way that delighted audiences and annoyed the regime. (Twelve years later he was to leave for the West.) The atheist authorities did not want to hear Christian music, let alone popular Christian music.

Not a religious youth, Pärt was on a journey to faith, which culminated in reception into the Orthodox Church in 1972. It was to prove fruitful for when he emerged from his silence, with Für Alina, his music was transformed.

Bouteneff fills in Pärt’s back story well but goes beyond straightforward biography. Out of Silence is in three parts. The first explores why and how a spiritual/ religious/ Orthodox analysis of Pärt is helpful and examines the role of the text in people’s experience of his music; the second looks at the theme of silence, via Pärt’s silent years and the nature of silence in the Orthodox Christian tradition; and the final one analyses the “dualities held in unity” in his music, and how this manages to combine lament and hope, sorrow and consolation, staying and stability in a way that is so compelling. For the most part Bouteneff manages to navigate between black hole and quagmire of simile, and lift a curtain on an oeuvre that says things to you that words will not, do not or cannot.

Pärt is deeply and profoundly inspired by the Christian, in particular the Orthodox, tradition. Bearded, reserved, steeped in the Church Fathers, he looks just the part although is, in fact, disturbingly ordinary and witty. “I am not a prophet, not a cardinal, not a monk,” he has remarked. “I am not even a vegetarian.” His post–1976 music is similarly steeped, being, in his words, mere translations of the text: “the words write my music”. Such obvious (and typical) humility notwithstanding, the sentiment is a telling one.

Bouteneff tells the story of Arnold Schonberg who, whilst listening to some Schubert lieder, realised that he had never paid attention to what they were about. He duly read the lyrics but having done so realised he had gained absolutely nothing for understanding the meaning of the songs. “Without knowing the poem, I had grasped [its] content, the real content, perhaps even more profoundly than if I had clung to the surface of the words.”

So it is with Pärt. Bouteneff embarks on the impossible task of trying say what that “real content” is in the final section of the book, knowing, one imagines, that his endeavour must end in failure. There is merit in the attempt, however, and his articulation of a “bright sadness” does, I think, get close to the heart. I would personally have reversed the phrase – preferring perhaps a “sorrowful” or “troubled joy”, thereby granting light rather than the darkness ontological primacy – but such disagreements are the nature of this musical beast. In reality, I suspect this is where Bouteneff actually stands, as at one point he summarises Pärt’s music, saying that it “seems to say”: “I know that there is brokenness and terrible suffering in the world. I hear you, and am with you in it. I also know that suffering is not the last word. The last word is light.”

Perhaps this is why Pärt is so loved, even (especially) among those who stand firmly beyond Christian, let alone Orthodox, walls. His music opens up glimpses of the transcendent within the immanent, without requiring any creedal hurdle be cleared in the process. It offers a still point in our turning world, without ever pretending the world is not turning, frantically, chaotically, painfully. Bouteneff repeatedly makes the point that not only does Pärt’s music speak to those who have lost any ‘rational’ spiritual vocabulary, but that it is also particularly popular with people in situations of pain. People suffering, on their journey toward death, often find a “curiously empathetic quality” in Pärt’s work, he writes. Listeners feel heard and accompanied in their suffering, that the music meets them in their affliction – because, as he acutely observes, people in their darker hours do not, in the first instance, want to be ‘cheered up’. They want to be understood, embraced.

If it were not to force Pärt’s extensive, varied and sublime work into too tight a mould, one might say that his music is ultimately cruciform: offering humanising salvation amidst – even through – the bewilderment and agonies of life. Such an analogy comes perilously close to the Quagmire of Simile, but it is one to which Bouteneff gravitates towards the end of his sensitive and thoughtful book, and one that may be permitted because Pärt himself is so informed by Christian thought, and has indicated that such an understanding is not too far off the mark.

Pärt’s work is, Bouteneff suggests, like the Psalms, which “simultaneously express that grief, legitimize it, [but] also delimit it, defining its proper parameters.” Or perhaps it is like St Paul’s understanding of the Spirit in Romans 8, which helps us in our weakness, interceding for us through wordless groans when we do not know what we ought to pray for. Ultimately, of course, it is not like anything. It is what it is. But the pull of the Quagmire is a hard one.

We live in a time when prayer is hard, when the very vocabulary of faith, always inadequate, always tenuous, never standardised, never uniform, is slipping from our grasp, as the Christian tradition becomes unknown to ever more people. That is the time for religious music, of which there are many fine examples today, and of which Pärt is, in my humble opinion, the finest. But don’t take my words for it. Go forth and listen


Nick Spencer

Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence by Peter C. Bouteneff is published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, New York, 2015


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Image by Woesinger from wikimedia.org, available under this Creative Commons Licence
Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). Outside of Theos, Nick is Visiting Research Fellow at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London and a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion

Posted 22 February 2016

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