Tintinnabuli and the Sacred: A View from the Archives, 1976–1977

Kevin C. Karnes

This presentation draws on Pärt’s compositional diaries, sketches, and other archival materials to reveal the devotional underpinnings of nearly the entirety of his tintinnabuli project in its formative years, despite the fact that Pärt’s first public successes with the new style were with ostensibly secular works. Many of the materials I consider – preserved at the Arvo Pärt Centre in Laulasmaa, the Estonian Theatre and Music Museum in Tallinn, and the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art in Riga – have never before been studied by researchers.

The paper opens by reconstructing, via archival sources, the composer’s various understandings of “tintinnabuli” during the period of his stylistic turn. I suggest that he did not, at the time, conceive of the moniker as a stylistic label at all, but as connoting a number of ways of experiencing and conceptualizing music, many of which aligned with the concerns of Vladimir Martynov, Alexei Lubimov, Hardijs Lediņš, and other young artists in the USSR simultaneously experiencing spiritual or religious awakenings.

Then, I turn to the compositional diaries to reveal Pärt’s overarching, even single-minded obsession between mid-1976 and the end of 1977: his search for means of expressing musically his Orthodox Christian faith, which ultimately gave rise to his discovery of what is often called his “syllabic” mode of composition. Finally, I shift to an interpretive mode, to reconsider a widely noted quality of Pärt’s tintinnabuli-style music, its play with what he calls “silence” (vaikus in Estonian; later, in Germany, die Stille). I attempt this by way of a comparative study of Pärt’s Missa syllabica (1977) and a body of paintings by the Russian artist and fellow Orthodox practitioner Eduard Steinberg (1937–2012), suggesting that it is in the radical abstraction of their artworks, rather than in their textural sparseness, that one might most readily apprehend something of the experience of apophatic knowledge.

Join our newsletter