Tintinnabuli: The Perfection of Ideals and Arvo Pärt’s “Berliner Messe, VII. Sanctus”

In which the Renaissance haunts the work of an Estonian composer.

Arvo_Part

To my dear reader,

I recently attended a training session for direct action – actions like sit ins, meant to directly protest injustice – during which a presenter drew a graph. It illustrated the trajectory of protest, moving from minimal actions (i.e. calling representatives) to legally formal ones (i.e. filing lawsuits) and finally to direct actions as a last resort. Being politically inexperienced, I found the graph illuminating, but was surprised that the presenter not only disliked it, but resented it. When I asked why, they said that it was because it was normative – because protest doesn’t strictly follow this pattern in real life.

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The graph drawn during the direct action training.

I found this to be an understandable but silly answer. Lots of things are merely approximations of real life, I pointed out to them. No planet is an absolute sphere, for example, but all are close enough that we consider them to be spheres for most purposes. Although this didn’t persuade the presenter, it did get me thinking about the perfect nature of ideals.

A common trope among young/amateur composers is that they don’t want to be hampered by the rules of music theory. I do agree with this thinking in part, as pre-existing rules and ideas shouldn’t restrain musical imagination. On the other hand, those rules are perfect distillations of musical patterns of the West’s past, and while they shouldn’t be followed like biblical law, I believe they should be understood and appreciated. A composition technique that speaks to this is tintinnabuli (after tintinnabulum, the Latin for bell) – a term and technique from Estonian composer Arvo Pärt – which is used in one of my favorite Pärt pieces, Berliner Messe, VII. Sanctus.

Tintinnabuli uses at least two melodic lines, one of which moves freely through a diatonic scale (usually in stepwise motion) and the other of which arpeggiates the tonic chord of that scale. The resultant sound is both modern and ancient, drawing from the melodic writing of Renaissance compositions while creating contemporary, bell-like dissonance unheard of during the Renaissance. As in many of Pärt’s works, this represents the relationship between Man and God. While Man, like the freely moving melodic line, wanders to and from the path of righteousness, God, like the melodic line arpeggiating the tonic chord, is reiterated in slightly different ways, sometimes crossing the path of Man, and sometimes not, but remaining unchanged and perfect.

This speaks to the nature of ideals in two ways. Firstly, it makes use of some ideals of Renaissance melodic writing, while not adhering to them so stringently as to inhibit Part’s musical vision. Secondly, however, the sound of the combination of these two kinds of melodic lines – stepwise and tonic chord arpeggations – resembles the relationship between real life and ideas. While real life, like the freely moving melodic line, wanders to and from the path of hopes or expectations, ideals, like the melodic line arpeggiating the tonic chord, are reiterated in slightly different ways, sometimes crossing the path of real life, and sometimes not, but remaining unchanged and perfect. While the presenter at that direct action training resented the graph they drew, I appreciated it because I saw it as merely being an ideal that protest would resemble, if never be precisely.

With all due respect,

Daniel Wolfert

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