Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov: Creative Parallels from Experimentation to Sensation

Peter J. Schmelz

Like many young Soviet composers during the post-Stalin Thaw, Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov experimented with a range of musical techniques in the 1960s before turning in radically simplified directions during the next decade. Pärt’s dizzying sequence of compositions from Obituary (1960) and Perpetuum mobile (1963) through his First (1963–1964) and Second (1966) Symphonies as well as his Collage über B-A-C-H (1964), Diagramme (1964), and Pro et contra (1966), investigated serial techniques, aleatory devices, sonorika, and quotation and collage. The culmination was his Credo (1968), after which he began his turn toward his better known tintinnabuli style.

Silvestrov employed a similar range of serial, aleatory, and sonorika approaches across his 1960s output, from his early serial piano works, including Triad (1962), and his Trio for flute, trumpet, and celesta from the same year through his Projections for harpsichord, vibraphone, and bells (1965), Spectrums for orchestra (1965), Symphony No. 3, “Eschatophony” (1966), and Meditation for cello and chamber orchestra (1972). Silvestrov’s Drama for violin, cello, and piano (1970–71) marked his pivot to the more subdued, quiet style he alternately called his kitsch or metaphorical style, represented most thoroughly by his Quiet Songs (1973–77).

Pärt is widely quoted praising Silvestrov as “without a doubt the most interesting composer today.” Silvestrov, surprised and embarrassed by this praise, attributes it to their mutual lineage, and to Pärt’s guilt at his own success. “We were all part of the same circle,” Silvestrov said, but “they became more sought after, and they were left with a kind of strange sensation.” The two composers were indeed received as part of the same circle in the USSR: both Pärt and Silvestrov were the lone composers from their generation featured in the Soviet youth magazine Krugozor in the late 1960s, the last times either appeared in the Soviet press for nearly two decades. Unexpectedly, in the 1960s Silvestrov was more successful than Pärt on the global stage: he and not Pärt won a Koussevitzky Prize in 1965, for example. But the Ukrainian Union of Composers was harsher than its Estonian counterpart, and Silvestrov suffered severely from its policing in the 1970s. Yet today both composers are known and celebrated for their similar aesthetics—a recent documentary is called That Pärt Feeling (2019) and pianist Hélène Grimaud has written about a “feeling Silvestrov offers the listener, a sensation I can only liken to ‘breathing light.’”

This paper explores for the first time the stylistic intersections and influences between Pärt and Silvestrov. Beginning in the 1960s, it traces the parallel paths of both composers, focusing on their liminal compositions—works sitting astride their avant-garde and simplified styles: chief among them Pärt’s Symphony No. 3 (1971) and Silvestrov’s Symphony No. 4 (1976). The contacts between Pärt and Silvestrov tell a particularly potent story about the dominant musical and sociopolitical trends and transformations from the 1960s through the present.

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