Music: Spiritual Lessons from Arvo Pärt

by Jay Chin


Whether it be the monastic discipline reflected in Gregorian Chant, the orchestral dramatizations of Bach and Haydn, or the contemplative yet Romantic Requiem of Gabriel Fauré, sacred music establishes an idealized relationship between humanity and the Divine. It is sublime, and it is beautiful. But the Ladder of Divine Ascent is chaotic, it is painful, and it is heartbreaking. There are both angels and demons. There is darkness and almost torturous self-reflection. Where is the music that presents these challenges? People love to make fun of Post-Modernist music. It’s weird and pretentious, they say. But perhaps the problem is not the music, but the listener. One wants to be sung to, not spoken to. And I believe very deeply that we need to be spoken to. When it comes to the Mystery of the Sacred, no composer speaks to the human condition as well Arvo Pärt.

When one hears the title “Trisagion for String Orchestra” for the first time, one thinks, of course, of the Trisagion, the Thrice Holy Hymn, chant, or the repetition of the same verse over and over again. But in this piece Pärt gives us no words, only strings playing very slowly. There is no real repetition. But there is a pattern, arpeggios and diatonic progression, almost imperceptible. And still, it is the Trisagion. How? The more we try to connect the hymn to Pärt’s composition, the more we realize that we have seldom taken the time to contemplate what the Trisagion is actually saying. In fact, most of our prayers are without contemplation. But when we do think about this hymn of praise, we see its double identity: libation and plea for mercy, an eternal contrast, like arpeggios and diatonic scales. Although we sing, we must also learn to be silent to understand the truths underlying each prayer.


The only thing worse than ignoring holy words is criticizing them. The Gospel of St. John is often criticized for its portrayal of Jesus, where it seems he is three inches off the ground, with His humanity undermined by His divinity. Pärt in his “Passio,” however, gives us a better perspective. This minimalistic, simple piece captures one’s attention with Jesus, a hardline baritone, and Pilate, a dramatic tenor. Jesus joins the ranks of villains such as Alberich and Méphistophélès. Pilate reminds us of tragic protagonists such as Canio and Rodolfo. Why this apparent role reversal? We like to associate ourselves with tenors. Tenors are righteous, never to blame, simply doing the best they can before cruel circumstances. Pilate is a tenor. Jesus, who we want to associate with, is not. Jesus did not come for the righteous. Jesus, who had no sin, was made sin. Jesus must remind us of what He came to accomplish, even if it bothers us. So what if we are the ones who are three inches off the ground, basking in our delusions, and Jesus is the one who is acting in conformity with reality? Pärt emphasizes how unsettling the Gospel needs to be, how it constantly reminds us who is God and who He is not.


The entirety of Christian spirituality is brilliantly summarized in his “Te Deum.” There are praises to given and beliefs to be proclaimed, but these words only have beauty inasmuch as they are enacted and contemplated. Pärt echoes the sung verses in the string solos and gives us periods of silence so that the message can reverberate within us. Nothing is rushed or repeated to excess. We seek meaning, not spectacle, after all. It is all quite brilliant. But, inevitably, sooner or later things begin to sound monotonous. Then, when you least expect it, it seems like Heaven has revealed itself to you. The text, Pärt’s techniques, the orchestra, and one’s heart, come together; and it is mystifying. One moment later, it is gone. You can hear the passage again, but it will not be the same. But everything, henceforth, gains new meaning. Pärt reminds us that the journey is neither pretty nor easy, but the more we step away from what is ordinary and learn to discipline hearts and minds, the closer we come to God, who makes all things new.


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