Pärt, Bach and the Bees

Toomas Siitan

If Bach Had Been a Beekeeper… is the most enigmatic composition from the formative years of Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli style. Prior to Christopher May’s 2017 dissertation defended in Oxford (System, Gesture, Rhetoric: Contexts for Rethinking Tintinnabuli in the Music of Arvo Pärt, 1960–1990), this work was practically absent from academic discussion. Furthermore, it is in an intriguing conflict with the common narrative depicting Pärt’s creative journey. Composed in the original version in 1976 and performed at the legendary concert where the tintinnabuli style was first introduced (27 October 1976), the piece combines Pärt’s compositional methods from contrasting stylistic periods and challenges the position of Credo (1968) as the watershed between avant-garde and tintinnabuli. The motif B‑A‑C‑H, which Pärt often used in his early work, has never been as central in the structure of the work as here; the estimated polarity of the opposing styles still resembles the aesthetics of his collages, and Pärt’s latest connection with Bach’s original music sheds new light on his earlier compositions.

If Bach Had Been a Beekeeper… was a controversial work in its time, which in a way also explains the nature of the tintinnabuli technique. It rises to the status of a transitional work alongside Credo and Symphony No. 3, and as such can show that the narrative of Pärt, as we have known until now, has been somewhat simplifying. The place this composition has had in the reception of Pärt’s work has also been misleading in its modesty: for the composer himself, the score has been very important. He has revised its first published version (1984) many times, but it was not until 2019 that a significantly changed version was created.

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