Light and darkness, faith and doubt

Christ in a Dominican monastery in Rome. © Charles Thibo
Christ in a Dominican monastery in Rome. © Charles Thibo

Today, Luxembourg celebrates its national holiday. For decades, this day has been marked by cherished traditions: fireworks, a military parade and a solemn mass with an even more solemn Te Deum. Lully, Bach, Händel, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Kodaly, Britten… many composers have set this early Christian hymn of praise to music. But one of the most impressive versions I know has been written by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, who turned 80 last year. I have a wonderful record released by the German label ECM recorded by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra conducted by Tonu Kaljuste.

The tension within

The beginning of Pärt’s Te Deum is dark and crystal clear at the same time: dark as far as the instrumental part and the male voices are concerned, they form the background that makes the female singers shine even more brightly. What the women sing is half a complaint and half a prayer. A piano triggers the male singers into echoing and amplifying the female voices. Gradually male and female voices merge into a joint praise of God.

Throughout the Te Deum,  instrumental , vocal and mixed parts alternate and create an exasperating-fascinating tension: the veneration of God, the wish to believe on the one hand, the anxiety about the question of eternal life and the forgiving of the sins on the other hand. It is a dilemma I only know to well. Faith and doubt go hand in hand, as Good and Evil do. One cannot exist without the other. “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”, Jesus said to Thomas according to John 20,29. Do I believe without seeing?

From Estonia to Austria and Germany

Arvo Pärt was born in 1935 and got his music education at the Music Middle School in Tallinn and the Tallinn Conservatory. He graduated in 1963. While working as a sound engineer at a local radio station, he started to compose his first pieces, mostly in a neo-classical style, often inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach and Gregorian chants. His Te Deum, composed in 1984/85, actually invokes but does not use Gregorian chant.

Composing music largely inspired by religious subjects did not endear Pärt to the authorities of the Socialist Soviet Republic of Estonia. He and his family emigrated in 1980 first to Austria, then to Germany. The Te Deum was commissioned by the Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne, an early promoter of contemporary classical music (see my first post on György Ligeti).

Choirs, piano and windharp

The work is scored for three choirs, a prepared piano, strings and a wind harp. It’s style has become Pärt’s hallmark: He invented a minimalist composing technique of his own, the tintinnabuli technique, defined by Oxford Music Online as “a melodic voice [moving] mostly by step around a central pitch […] and the tintinnabuli voice [sounding] the notes of the tonic triad”.

I discovered Pärt through a friend who had become fascinated by Gregorian chants and Bach’s religious music although he was – and probably still is – a total agnostic. I am always impressed how deep this kind of music can penetrate someone’s soul even if that person does not follow any religion. Transcendence…

© Charles Thibo

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