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Length: c. 34 minutes
Orchestration: timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, crotales, marimba, sizzle cymbal, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, and triangle), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (world premiere)
For most of the 1960s, Pärt was composing in a serial idiom, including his Symphony No. 1, “Polyphonic” (1964). A growing interest in Bach and the use of collage, apparent in his Symphony No. 2 (1966), began to subvert the serialism, and after the composition of Credo in 1968 – officially condemned for its explicit religious statement – Pärt devoted himself to the study of plainsong and early music, writing little else besides counterpoint exercises. The Symphony No. 3 (1971), one of the few large works from this period, reflects those obsessions.
By the mid-’70s he arrived at a new style he called “tintinnabulation.” “Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work,” Pärt has said. “In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I called it tintinnabulation.”
Tabula Rasa and the Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten (both 1977) are well-known orchestral examples of the new style, also manifest in the various Fratres pieces. Much of his music since 1980 has been for voices. (Kevin Bowyer plays some of Pärt’s organ music from the 1970s and ’80s on a Bach/Pärt recital here February 1.)
Since developing tintinnabulation, Pärt has not composed any orchestral work that could be called symphonic in scope or structure. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have long desired to commission a new work by Pärt, however, and when this project was proposed to the composer in February 2007, the suggestion came at an opportune moment. “Pärt was working at the time with an ancient canon in Church Slavonic containing a prayer to a guardian angel – the connection to ‘Los Angeles’ was irresistible,” as a note for the score indicates. “Pärt was further inspired to take the commission by the idea of seeing this work performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, one of the best orchestras in the world, under its music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, and in Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of the most exciting concert buildings of our time.”
Pärt’s first three symphonies were scored for relatively full orchestras, but the new one adopts his preferred instrumental forces for the tintinnabulation style – strings with percussion. It incorporates “These Words…,” a shorter work for strings and percussion that premiered in May 2008, in Copenhagen. That title is a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Pärt used elements of the prayer he was working with – number of syllables, inflection, punctuation, etc. – to shape its structure.
In texture and spirit the new symphony is very much in full tintinnabulation mode. The materials are no longer quite so simple, however. Pärt has always loved suspensions, hanging a tone from one chord over into another, and now his chords sometimes approach the richness of added-note jazz harmonies and the slender, often ineffably poignant, modal tunes are chromatically bent. There are still clear tonal centers, but often smudged, like the final pages of this Symphony, with half the orchestra in A major and the other half in A minor.
The first movement opens with a serene prelude of shimmering, sustained string chords – con sublimità - slowly moving down from high to low, E major pointing to A minor in a dominant-tonic relationship. This ethereal prelude comes to earth with resounding thumps in a boldly energized and pulsed section that passes through widely divergent minor keys by way of common tone and enharmonic relationships. The movement ends in calm sorrow, with a muted little tune graced by intimations of the opening harmonies.
The edgy central movement alternates two sharply contrasting ideas. The first is a compressed pattern of pizzicato block chords; the second is a more expansive, harmonically and sonically wider ranging sequence. Fraught with grand pauses, the movement crests on a furiously buzzing G-sharp-minor chord, succeeded by another doleful muted melody. As the movement subsides, the violas emphasize tonal ambiguity, vacillating between G and G-sharp as they take the lyrical lead.
The finale reverses the Symphony’s broad harmonic progression, starting on the same G-sharp-minor chord (softly this time) and moving quickly – again via common tones – to A minor. A drooping tune begins high with a solo violin (con intimo sentimento) and works its way down through the strings to a point of expectant repose. From there a large coda begins, softly in the basses but gaining obsessive vehemence as it rises, with half of each section oscillating on the tones of the A-minor triad while the other half plays a little stepwise theme in A major. Gradually the lower instruments drop out, and the noncommittal marimba has the last notes, a bare fifth, as the music seems to escape audible expression into a Platonic purity.
Arvo Pärt has dedicated his Symphony No. 4, “Los Angeles,” to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil magnate controversially imprisoned in Russia.
John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Director of Publications.