Sei gelobt, du Baum


Hail thee, thou tree!

15 years since the Willisau premiere of Arvo Pärt’s composition Sei gelobt, du Baum

Text by Ardo Västrik, Arvo Pärt Centre

Among Arvo Pärt’s works is a short and rarely performed composition, Sei gelobt, du Baum (Hail thee, thou tree!). Written in 2007 to accompany a text by Viivi Luik, the piece has a somewhat unusual ensemble of performers – baritone, violin, double bass and quintern. The last of these will be unfamiliar to many, yet the interesting backstory to its inclusion in the quartet and the knowledge that the parts written for it can also be played on a mandolin or lute make for a piece that definitely deserves more attention.

In the spring of 2003, writer Viivi Luik was visiting the small Swiss town of Willisau as a fellow of the Albert Koechlin Foundation. That town’s old restored mill, which housed the Foundation’s creative rooms, was also home to a cultural centre with a thriving concert programme and a small but exquisite museum of musical instruments. The head of the instrument collection was Adrian Steger, who, according to Luik, lives for music. Willisau is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, and it soon became clear that Steger was also a big fan of Arvo Pärt’s music. When Pärt’s upcoming milestone birthday came up in conversation one time, Steger was somehow reminded of an old piece of wood that had previously been donated to the museum, and, in that moment, the idea came to him to have this piece of wood made into a musical instrument and dedicate it to the great composer.

So what was it, actually? In 1962, during the construction of a well in the Tschäpperli vineyard of the Blarer family in Aesch, near Basel, a piece of the trunk of a silver fir (about 120 cm long) happened to be unearthed from two to three metres below ground level. The log was put into storage and forgotten until 2001 when it was rediscovered in a wine cellar by Margareta von Blarer, a carpenter. Having trained as an organ builder, von Blarer immediately realised that this piece of silver fir would be well-suited to making an instrument, as it had grown straight and branchless so that the tree’s growth rings were evenly spaced. The family decided to have the wood made into a violin and to donate what was left to the Willisau Museum of Musical Instruments. It was suspected already at the time that the material might be quite old, but a dendrochronological C14 study carried out in 2006 proved that the tree, which was some 200 years old at the time it fell, had been in the ground for about 2,300 years! The tree was probably knocked over by a landslide and covered with clay, which would have created the conditions by which it was preserved for such a long time.

Due to various circumstances, Steger’s plan did not come to fruition immediately, but in the spring of 2006, Pärt became aware of the old piece of wood and its background thanks to Viivi Luik. It was Steger’s modest wish that Pärt would write a melody for at least a single sentence from the Bible relating to the praise of trees. But during the search for a suitable passage from the scriptures, and inspired by the background story, Luik, through whom the correspondence about the work mainly passed, also included her own little German poem “Sei gelobt, du Baum!” – Pärt related to it almost immediately.

Sei gelobt, du Baum!
Du, der du uns Holz für Wiegen und für Särge,
für Orgel und für Geigen gibst!
Du, der du die Erde und Himmel vereinst.
Sei gelobt.
Jeder einzelne Baum auf Erden,
jeder einzelne Baum,
auf Erden.

Hail thee, thou tree!
Thou who gives us wood for cradles and for coffins,
for organ and for violins!
Thou who joins the earth and sky together.
Hail thee.
Every single tree on the earth,
every single tree,
on the earth.

(Translation by Reet Sool)

Around the same time as the search for a suitable passage, a plan was hatched in Switzerland to make a lute out of the old piece of wood, but luthier Richard Earle, who was commissioned to carry out the project, expressed doubts as to whether the material would behave as required for the construction of such an instrument. To get around the problem, he proposed the idea of a historical instrument with a slightly smaller body and a different design: the quintern.

Studying the composer’s creative diaries, we learn that after the first sketches were made in May, the serious creative process began in January 2007, and the composition was largely completed in a few months, by the end of April. By an exciting coincidence, Earle had finished making the instrument in question around the same time. The old tree was used as the instrument’s soundboard, while the luthier used 200-year-old cherry wood from the same area for the body and neck.

Even with the composition and instrument in place, the work had to “sit on the windowsill for a bit” and was premiered at Willisau Church on 27 February 2009 with Derek Lee Ragin as baritone, double bassist Barry Guy and Maya Homburger and Peter Croton on the specially crafted violin and quintern, respectively. The fact that the programme, which consisted of both medieval and contemporary music, was played on these two instruments crafted from ancient wood made the concert extra special. The sound of the resulting piece is unmistakably Pärt, incorporating the rules of the composer’s tintinnabuli technique while at the same time leaving enough freedom to reflect on the temporal and the timeless. The singer’s constant accompaniment is the quintern, the two performing the same melody in unison but the latter slightly more melismatic. The violin plays more the role of a commentator, with a fairly broad range across the short interludes. The double bass, for its part, keeps everything in the same tonality, until just before the conclusion, the bowed instruments stretch into extreme registers, figuratively connecting the earth and the sky. Then, in the final moments, the quintern lingers as if in homage to the ancient tree.

A truly wonderful moment occurred last year when the correspondence related to this composition was being archived at the Arvo Pärt Centre. Adrian Steger had also sent the composer a piece of the old amber-coloured wood for inspiration. And so, under the pines of Laulasmaa, there lies a piece of history.

For those interested, a recording of the work is available on the Centre’s website.

Quintern. Photo by Georg Anderhub.

The article was published in the magazine Muusika (March 2024).

The page image of the article: The premiere of Pärt’s work at Willisau Church. Photo by Ruedi Steiner.

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