Creator Spiritus by Arvo Pärt. Performed by Theatre of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen, NYYD Quartet and Christopher Bowers-Broadbent at the organ. Musical director Paul Hillier. harmonia mundi, April 2012
As you’ll inevitably get Bach-ed out this weekend, this is perfect music in which to take refuge. Creator Spiritus is a selection of Arvo Pärt’s pieces that could be called twenty-first-century sacred. The texts used are the religious poetry by medieval monks, standard liturgical chants and Stabat Mater, but the music is of our time, questioning, uneasy. It is expressive only according to its own logic, even when it quotes di Lasso, Palestrina and Joaquin Desprez. It can get atmospheric as well as ascetic, exuberant as well as full of dread, but it is not exactly easily amenable to straightforward institutional worship.
It took me some time to make up my mind if some of the pieces – jubilant, beautiful “Veni, creator”, for example – could belong in a religious ceremony, and decided against. The music is too darn interesting, makes you take note of it and contemplate it outside of the context of it being a suitable channel to the divinity. It doesn’t go straight for your emotions – it more kind of clears the mind clouds.
There are pieces in which the vocal line – usually solo, sometimes divided between two voices — moves in a very limited way, only within a triad or anchoring on a single note, and it’s up to the instruments to speak more elaborately. For example, “My heart is in the highlands” (2000) with the female voice against the organ behaving peculiarly; or “Der Wallfahrtslied” (A Pilgrim’s Song, 1984, rev. 1996) with a male monotone against a proper modernist string quartet piece.
In “Most Holy Mother of God, Save Us” (2003), there is no other text, and in the Orthodox tradition, no instruments either. The chorus weaves its intricate lines of the same liturgical chant a cappella. In “The Deer’s Cry” (2007), again no instruments to the full choir, but what colours, what symphonic riches are achieved with seemingly looping, self-hypnotic text! Written by St. Patrick in 344, it goes:
Christ with me
Christ before me
Christ behind me
Christ in me
Christ beneath me
Christ above me
Christ on my right
Christ on my left
It’s one of the most straightforwardly moving pieces in the collection, with vocal sections dividing and reuniting and breaking against one another.
Then there’s “Peace upon you, Jerusalem” (2002) for the female choir, with its almost-movements spelled out by the composer in unusual detail (rigorosamente, con anima, tranquillo etc). Paul Hillier points out in the notes that it’s “one of the more fanciful of Pärt’s compositions in the sense that the setting is through-composed and responds vividly to the meaning and rhetoric of the words”. In other words, it’s unusual of Pärt to make music that illustrates the words and whatever emotions they’re supposedly conveying. But every now and again he changes tack.
The final and longest piece is Stabat Mater (1985), which Pärt set for three voices and trio of strings, and many combinations thereof (solos, duets instrument-voice, duets voice-voice, trio instrument-instrument-voice, and so on). In their generally chant-like musical format, the voices are somewhat more constrained than the instruments, which are also given their own independent segments, each a very bold statement and so much more than interlude.
A fascinating re-think of the sound of the sacred.