Length: c. 6 minutes
Orchestration: strings and bell
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 11, 2002, Paavo Järvi conducting
The three very quiet, widely spaced chimings of a lone bell that open the Cantus initiate music that casts a mesmerizing spell, enveloping one in its transcendental aura for the six-minute duration of the piece. When the strings enter, they begin very softly and increase in intensity little by little, reaching a sustained fortissimo level as they play throughout on variants of a descending scale of A minor. The scales, permeated by the bell’s seemingly random appearances, overlap each other at different speeds, the whole wash of sound creating an archaic, churchly atmosphere. The repetitiousness of the music suggests minimalism, but the elevated nature of the Cantus, call it spirituality, sets it apart from any kind of formulaic method.
There wasn’t any human relationship or seemingly a musical one between the Estonian and Benjamin Britten. But Pärt was moved to write a work in memory of the British composer, describing the inception of the piece. “Why did the date of Benjamin Britten’s death – December 4, 1976 – touch such a chord in me? During this time I was obviously at the point where I could recognize the magnitude of such a loss,” he said in answering his own question. “I had just discovered Britten for myself. Just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music. And besides, for a long time I had wanted to meet Britten personally, and now it would not come to that.”
One wonders whether Britten would appreciate the purity of the work Pärt wrote in his memory. That it is indeed of unusual purity is certain, however different from the products of Britten’s creativity. Even so, one can venture a guess that the unique quality of the Cantus could not fail to capture the imagination of a composer of Britten’s sensibility.
— Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.