Arvo Pärt Festival: When meaning and music collide

At Cappella Romana's exploration of the great Estonian composer's music, one listener finds that sacred sounds and secular listeners don't always connect


Music serves meaning and that meaning can be embedded in a text. It can deliver that meaning as forcefully or more forcefully than speech or writing. It can be used for all purposes benign or malignant, it can lead listeners to a transcendent experience, highly dependent on their own associations. And, in a sense, the music is completed by listeners from within their sphere of meaningful associations regardless of whether a text is understood.

At Cappella Romana’s February 5-12 Arvo Pärt Festival, that physical sphere was various Portland cathedrals and churches and Kaul Auditorium at Reed College: the former, places to pursue divinity, the latter a place to pursue reason and scientific and intellectual truth.

Cappella Romana performed throughout the Arvo Part festival. Photo: Ted Jack.

I came face to face with a conundrum: having questioned the validity of labeling Pärt’s music mystical, spiritual, or sacred I found myself questioning the meaning of my appreciation of the music and the intent of the texts.

Arvo Pärt is one of the most widely performed and oft-recorded composers of his time. The much-heralded father of Holy Minimalism, Arvo Pärt writes spacious, tonal music that is at times ecstatic and exuberant, at others dark, brooding, deeply contemplative. Much of his oeuvre is for vocal ensembles of various sizes, with and without instrumental accompaniment, and often employs sacred Christian texts from Catholic and Eastern Orthodox liturgies.

Part’s use of the syntax and mechanics of his chosen texts to construct musical renditions (an iconoclastic rejection and reworking of serial and twelve-tone techniques he’d used masterfully in his early works) raises a question: Do I tacitly accept or condone the meaning and purpose of the texts by choosing to listen to his music?

Arvo Part. Photo: Birgit Puve.

Having enjoyed Pärt’s instrumental works and several of his choral works with non-English texts, I was eager to hear his setting of liturgical texts translated to English to see how it would affect my experience. Saturday morning’s beautifully meditative performance of selections from Kanon Pokajanen (an Orthodox hymn sung in Church Slavonic) interspersed with Triodion (settings of the Eastern Orthodox liturgical book framed with personal devotional pleas for guidance) was structured by the vocal ensemble into a worship service format with the composer’s setting of a Christian fable inserted where the sermon would be (The Woman with the Alabaster Box). The choir was fresh and the performance impeccable.

I was pleased with the simple symmetry devices the composer used to structure the Triodion and the fable setting: the devotional pleas framing the odes, one at the start, seven at the end; the oblique counterpoint that rose and fell over a stationary voice when Christ speaks of his departure from the apostles; the descent of the bass line to the word “burial.”

Cappella Romana sang music by Arvo Pärt at St. Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Tom Emerson.

But I began to notice a disconnect between my enjoyment of the music and my response to the import of the texts. This was the result of understanding the meaning of the English words instead of just appreciating the sound of them as I did the Church Slavonic. The lesson of the fable was lost to me and I found myself siding with the apostles who wanted to sell the woman’s expensive oil to raise funds for the poor.

I admitted to myself that, up until this concert, the meaning of the texts had played no part in my appreciation of Pärt’s work. And I am sure many of his fans listen in the same way. We listen to and appreciate the music regardless of the potential affront we may feel if the text were translated and revealed contentious content (recent heated discussions of the English translations of Bach cantatas and their anti-Semitic content are a case in point).

Plodding ‘Passion’

Hailed as some of Pärt’s most beautiful music, the Passio is a strict application of the composer’s tintinnabuli style of using the syntax and mechanics of a text to govern his compositional choices. At 70 minutes, the spare, motionless piece is a challenging experience even when listening in the comfort of one’s home.

Saturday evening’s performance in Trinity Cathedral, with the Third Angle ensemble accompanying Cappella Romana, proved to be an exhausting crawl through the framework of the text, English subtitles projected in white font on a blue background on the back wall of the apse. The mesmerizing incantations of ritual delivery were masked by the pedestrian translation, lending a stark, homicide-report quality to the words. Director Alexander Lingas’s dogged efforts to hold back the natural swell and pulse of the delivery produced a dirge-like pace that strained the vocalists’ instruments and the audience’s endurance, resulting in a performance that stalled a third of the way through the challenging middle section and finished the evening dead in the water. Even the exultant, massive, major chord ending and Portland’s ubiquitous standing ovation weren’t enough to clear the torpor.

‘Passio’ by candlelight. Photo: Tom Emerson.

But perhaps this trial was actually the true spirit of the piece. It could be argued that the story of the passion (necrotic in nature) is best served by such morbid exactitude. Being an atheist, my experience lacked the worshipful appreciation of a devout listener that might render the performance transcendent — complete with penitential pain drawn out by cruelly non-ergonomic pews.

To be fair, the setting was exquisite. The great vaulted belly of the cathedral was darkened reverently and lit by a single candle and a few subdued bulbs, and the acoustics imbued the music with numinous reverberance. It was an evening of excruciating stillness. Torturously beautiful and austere, the experience led me to the conclusion that, by listening to this music from outside the culture and influence of the Christian church for the purpose of entertainment and enjoyment, I was practicing a form of appropriation. I was appropriating the sacred purpose of the performance to serve my desire for the aesthetic thrill of the abstract music.

Patronizing Pulpit

The following morning’s performance of Pärt’s Missa Syllabica (a pure syllable-by-syllable setting of the Catholic Mass ordinary) offered an opportunity to hear the composer’s work in the context of its sacred culture: in this case, the Sunday morning Mass celebration at southeast Portland’s St. Stephens Catholic Church. Stepping outside the role of tourist into one of witness, I was set straight about the role of Pärt’s music in relation to its sacred texts. Here was the everyday Catholic experience wherein the liturgical texts, that the composer has so often chose to set to music, live on and continue to influence congregations, centuries after their recording in codices by stiff-fingered monks.

The priest’s reception of the church’s secular guests was pedantic at best. His homily began with a patronizing introduction of Pärt’s Missa Syllabica: music leads us off the path, is an escape, he insisted, but when in service of the Lord through liturgical use it is of great value, and none more so than the music of the humblest church choir; and finally, the Christian faith is in no way minimalist. The priest followed this offputting analysis with a report of his advocacy from the front lines of the efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and a lesson (that was hard to receive as anything other than a schooling of his secular guests) on adultery as committed via birth control and divorce with an emphasis on women being the vectors of this particular sin.

Members of Cappella Romana performing ‘Passio’ by candlelight. Photo: Ted Jack.

We apostates were guests in his house, and our duty was to respect its traditions—but what a way to start an engagement whose invitation implied nothing of proselytizing. How could anyone find beauty and truth in music that served such repressive, anachronistic beliefs? Devout Catholics, no doubt, but liberal appreciators of art music? Blue-eyed yogis, mainstream meditators, dancers of universal peace? Are we appropriating this music to serve our affluent, aesthetic pleasures?

This concept of appropriation seemed to fit secular listeners; even when the numinous nature (the universal language) of musical sound is thrown into the equation, a note of hypocrisy sounds. Can a secular listener appreciate sacred music without condoning the actions of the church it lives within? Can a listener disconnect appreciation from the historical and quotidian applications of the text’s meaning (as governed by the Church of Rome)? This is a kind of privileged appropriation or consumption that puts the consumer’s appreciation above the pain of those whose backs have supported the culture throughout history.

Academic Attitudes

The festival’s final concert at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium (Pärt’s Te Deum and pieces from other composers associated with the Holy Minimalism label) was filled to capacity and buzzed with the kind of excitement that permeates an arts event attended by like minds and enthusiastic fans. Here the sphere of association was the academic atmosphere of a lecture hall styled performance venue: a kind of alter to reason, to scientific and intellectual truth.

Though the performances were consistent and met with applause, the instrumentalists suffered from the kind of fatigue that plagues ensembles of gigging musicians who constantly struggle to find enough time to rehearse adequately. However, the program was well thought out and added welcome contrast to the stark simplicity of Pärt’s sound. Both James MacMillan (Who are these Angels?) and John Tavener (Funeral Canticle) chose to juxtapose dissimilar musics to create stylistic tensions that resolve emblematically — the former in a sighing, resigning descent, and a solo cantor’s acclamation in Byzantine style for the latter.

Greek secular composer Thanos Mikroutsikos’ Slow Motion was a slow-boil exercise in lyrical contrasts that hinted at Pärt’s masterful mensuration canon Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. Expecting the inevitable climax, à la Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, I was deeply satisfied when, instead, the composer brought the piece to a close in a fading, scintillating ascent to an irresolute stratosphere: a window onto the multivalent universe.

Festival finale at Reed College.

All of my pondering about music and meaning during the festival was unexpectedly enriched during the intermission. A self-proclaimed liturgical critic approached me in the foyer during intermission and asked if I was as disappointed in the previous night’s performance of the Passio as he was. We exchanged notes and agreed on some points and differed on others. I explained my efforts to come to terms with my role as a non-Christian, areligious listener in light of the meaning of the texts being sung. He smiled at my attempts to clarify my concerns. “You are addressing rational meaning,” he replied simply. “Don’t forget about nonrational meaning.”

And therein lies a handy justification for loving sacred music as a nonreligious listener and for ignoring the history of injustice that plagues organized western religions. Indeed, this kind of intellectual flimflammery is a powerful tool for the validation of the very cultural appropriation it seems to disempower.

In an ArtsWatch preview of Cappella Romana’s recent performance of Rautavaara’s Vigilia, I encouraged the atheist, nonreligious listener to consider sacred music. I said there was much there to stimulate the intellect and ear. And I was right. But my experiences at the wildly successful, sometimes brilliantly performed, and masterfully produced Arvo Pärt Festival proved my ignorance. I may have a choice to listen to a particular type of music, but that choice comes with a cultural responsibility to listen respectfully and intentionally, fully informed. And if to be fully informed is to discover deep opposition to the meaning and practical purposes of a text, then I must consider not listening as the choice of integrity.

Though we crave the pleasurable response to the numinousness of music, I suggest that, before jumping on the bandwagon of mystical music, of holy minimalism, or of any western sacred music, we would do well to first consider the cargo to which the music is yoked.

Daniel Heila writes music, plays flute, and loves words in Eugene.

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