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Dreams and Passions of Arvo Pärt

Read a portion of David Lang's introduction to spirit, one of six programs he curated as part of his collected stories series, featuring composer Arvo Pärt's Passio on April 23. Lang explains that "collected stories divides the world not by genre or style, but by the various kinds of stories that a piece of music can tell in order to see how the story and the composer work together." Explore the rest of David Lang's collected stories series here.

In the beginning was the Word. Don’t take my word for it—thus spake St. John. It’s the first sentence of the Gospel according to John, a religious text beloved by many composers throughout history and, coincidentally, the one that is nastiest to the Jews: It is John who most explicitly blames Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. Two-thousand years of persecution can be traced to this text. As a Jewish musician, it can be disturbing to listen to Bach’s great setting of the St. John Passion, torn as we are between the religious caricature and the awesome power of Bach’s music. There are few things Bach wrote that are as dramatic as “Herr, unser Herrscher” (“Lord, our Ruler”), the painful opening chorus. It is heartfelt and awesome and magnificent, but none of those features make it any easier for me to hear.

Passio by Arvo Pärt is also a setting of the Gospel according to John, and like all Passions it tells the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. I wanted to program this piece because of its connection to Easter, but also because it is so beautiful.

I remember exactly when I found out about Pärt and his music. In 1984, his record Tabula Rasa came out; I bought it and got deeply hooked. His emigration from the mysterious East of Soviet-ruled Estonia, his religious practice, and his big scraggly beard gave him immediate spiritual credibility. His music on that record unfolded beautifully and powerfully, with rigorous formality and elegantly controlled directness, and it sounded authentic and pure. I remember listening to the record twice the day I bought it—in the dark before going to bed—and then I dreamed about it. In my dream, Pärt’s beard was even scragglier, and I got to hear a complete (and completely made up) piece of his. It was a wild and terrifying string orchestra piece called The Jesus Who Howls. (That was probably the most exciting dream I ever had ...)

His next CD was Passio, and I bought it the day it was released. I was so eager to listen to it, and it shocked me before I even heard a single note. I put the CD in the player and the track listing came up: 75 minutes long, one track. No index points, no places to stop and start, no way to replay your favorite moments. It was a statement. If you want to listen to this music, you have to start at the beginning and stay until the end.

Having only one track is a courageous way to organize a CD, but it’s also an indication of how the music is made. There are no highlights or moments of manipulated tension and release. How can there be? There is no point in using the music to generate suspense or surprise or to heighten the fearful expectations of the listener because everyone in the audience already knows from the beginning of the story exactly how it will end. There is a straight line drawn from the beginning of the work until it is over, and all of Pärt’s musical decisions are about keeping the music squarely on it.

A point of spiritual music is to help reinforce the togetherness of the community that practices that kind of spirituality—the people who already share their stories and beliefs and feelings. Music for those communities may be more about creating a constant state of mind than a forward-moving drama because it is helping to tell stories the community already knows.

Pärt creates this constant state of mind by limiting his musical options and linking them to the words, using the text itself to help regulate the music’s form. Almost all of the text is set syllabically, and almost all the syllables have the same length. What changes do happen in phrase, cadence, and rhythm are shaped almost entirely by the punctuation marks of the original Latin: The commas, colons, and periods of the Vulgate govern the pacing of the music. How better to honor a text whose beginning was the Word?

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