Sarah was ninety years old. It took me a while to see the reference to the Genesis 17:17. It took me some twenty years to trace the title of this piece back to the Old Testament. Sarah gave birth to her son Isaac at the age of 90, Abraham, the father, being 100 years old at the miraculous birth of the boy. Neither father nor mother did believe God when he announced to both that Abraham would have a true heir and that he intended to establish a Covenant with Abraham and later with Isaac – the very origin of the Jewish religion. But God kept word and the miracle happened. A singular event which has its parallel in the New Testament: the miraculous birth of Jesus by a virgin of the name of Mary.
The day I shot the picture illustrating this post was the first day of snow last December. It was shortly after sunrise and I walked through the garden to the car. The light was diffuse, the snow pristine. No sound was to be heard. A spooky silence. Bam, bam, bam, bong. Bam, bam, bam, bong. I could hear the opening bars of Arvo Pärt’s piece “Sarah was Ninety Years old”. The Estonian composer wrote it in 1977 for three voices, organ and percussion and it lasts some 25 minutes without interruption.
Defying the powers that be
While Pärt, a citizen of the Estonian Socialist Soviet Republic, composed his piece, the Soviet Union’s first human rights group known as the “Helsinki Group” was founded. Prominent members were Jelena Bonner, Alexander Ginsburg and Yuri Orlov. They fought for the respect of the human rights provisions pf the Helsinki Act that the USSR as a member of the CSCE* had signed in 1975. However by the time Pärt had finished Orlov had already been arrested, a year later he was sent to a labour camp in Siberia. Writing modern liturgical music while the Soviet Union cracks down on human rights activists – an act of defiance? An act of hope? An act of faith?
Bam, bam, bam, bong. Listening to this piece requires a meditative approach. Tension builds gradually by the repetition of this motive over many, many minutes. Four solemn percussion beats, intensifying over time and illustrating Abraham’s and Sarah’s long wait, their hope to have a son. Then a slow a cappella song, it’s rather a praise, fills the air – God’s revelation to Abraham and Sarah and the beginning of the Covenant. The percussions return – Abraham and Sarah, still incredulous wait for another year. Meanwhile Sodom and Gomorrah are razed. The a cappella song announces the next step: Isaac’s birth.
The last section of the piece is marked by a new pattern for the percussion, quicker, more insistant – a great miracle has happened and is being announced to the world. Sarah has given birth to a son at the age of 90 because it was God’s will. Finally the organ sets in – jubilation.
Even after 20 years, this composition still amazes me. Minimalist art with a maximum expressive power. I has been recorded by the Hillard Ensemble for the label ECM.
© Charles Thibo
*The Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) was a forum of members of NATO, the Warsaw Pact and neutral states. It renamed itself Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) in Europe in 1995.