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Composed: 1977

Length: c. 6 minutes

Orchestration: glockenspiel and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 11, 2002, Paavo Järvi conducting

About this Piece

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 to a sustained fortissimo 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 (Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams are preeminent practitioners of this style), but the elevated nature of the Cantus—call it spirituality—sets it apart from any kind of formulaic method.

Arvo Pärt attended the Tallinn Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1963. While still a student, he began working as a recording engineer for Estonian radio and also wrote more than 50 film scores. In 1980, he, his wife, and their two children received permission to emigrate to Israel, but, stopping first in Vienna for more than a year, they eventually settled in West Berlin, where they now live.

In the late 1970s, Pärt began to use a style he termed “tintinnabulation.” He explained it this way: “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements—with one voice, two voices,...primitive materials, with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it ‘tintinnabulation.’”

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.”

— Orrin Howard