Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten

Notes by TŌN violinist Sabrina Parry

The Composer
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is particularly well known today for his creation of the musical technique named “tintinnabuli.” Pärt began his piano studies at the age of three and went on to attend the Rakvere Music School and Tallinn Music School as a teenager. After a brief two years of mandatory military service for the Soviet Army he finished his schooling, with many compositions from this time still being acknowledged today.

Tintinnabuli
In his 20s, Pärt worked as a sound engineer and found himself experimenting with many of the compositional techniques and styles that were in vogue at the time, but not lingering amongst them. In 1976, after many years of turmoil and self-discovery, as well as an obsession with early music such as Gregorian chant and Renaissance music, he birthed the musical technique “tintinnabuli.” From the Latin tintinnabulum, a bell, when used, this technique brings together both melody and triad to create a united ensemble. This distinct method has been used by Pärt in his compositions for nearly 40 years, with one of his earliest examples being the Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, which you will hear today.

In Memory of Benjamin Britten
Pärt learned of Benjamin Britten’s passing while listening to the radio one day in 1976. While the two had no personal connection, Pärt said, “Why should the date of Benjamin Britten’s death [December 4, 1976] touch such a chord in me? Evidently it was only in that moment that I matured enough to realize the magnitude of such a loss. Inexplicable feelings of duty, or even more than that, arose in me—I had just discovered Britten for myself. Not a very long time before his death, I recalled my impression of his music’s rare purity.”

The Music
Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, for string orchestra and bell, premiered in 1977 and was written using tintinnabuli, as well as canon. In this six-minute work, Pärt used the A-minor scale in a descending pattern that is repeated, beginning with the violins, after three tolls of the bell. Each subsequent entrance of this scale is an octave lower and half the tempo of the preceding line, creating five layers out of one simple scale. The culminating sound created by these techniques in the string orchestra juxtaposed with the bell create a lush and hypnotic melody, very pleasing to the ear and emanating a churchly atmosphere.