Pointillist Music Ahead of the Composer’s Silence

The Pointillist painter Georges Seurat painted “Parade de Cirque” in 1887/88.

As you may have noticed, occasionally paintings by Claude Monet illustrate my posts. I love the Impressionist paintings and Monet certainly is my favourite painter. In the wake of Impressionism sailed a group of painters that took the Impressionist technique to new extreme: Their paintings would exclusively consist of minuscule dots, paintings made like an ancient mosaic. Or like a picure composed of pixels. Since the dot’s name in French is “point”, this technique quickly went by the name of “Pointillism”.

When I listened for the first time to Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 2, I had to think of the Pointillist technique. The first movement has a melodic line that consists entirely of isolated, Pizzicato* played notes. Interesting! The orchestra and solo instruments play longer phrases every now and then and all taken together a musical whole builds up – just like a Pointillist painting. If you stand very close to it, you can only see coloured dots. If you take a few steps back, you can discern shapes, contours, light and shadow.

For a symphony it is a very short piece of music, lasting about ten minutes on the recording by NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic under Tönu Kaljuste. Pärt wrote it in 1966, shortly before he stopped composing for a lengthy period of time. The juxtaposition of styles may have mirrored “the aesthetic quandary the composer found himself in at the time”, as Jeremy Grimshaw, assistant professor for music and writer, puts it. In the 1970 Pärt would emerge from his silence with a style if his own, the “tintinnabuli” style, marked by omnipresent tonality and an emphasis on transparent, blendable timbres.

Symphony No. 2 is a curious piece. It fits in no drawer, it sounds like modernity expressed with the means of the past. It is very expressive, it speaks to me, but it’s message is ambiguous, it changes each time I listen to it. As I have said: interesting.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.

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