The snow falls softly, making great piles outside the Arvo Pärt Centre in Laulasmaa, about 35 kilometres from Tallinn.

For those who have visited the Schoenberg Centre in Vienna it could seem a familiar sort of operation – a composer’s archive for researchers and musicologists and performers.

Arvo Pärt
© Birgit Püve

But the strange difference is that this composer is very much alive. Arvo Pärt is the most performed living composer in the world, and one of the most performed composers full stop. He has had such status for much of the last decade, according to Bachtrack’s statistics.

In 2014, when he was also the most performed living composer, Bachtrack interviewed him, mentioning in particular the popularity of choral music. He said: “I am very pleased to hear this... To the question, why choral music is so popular with audiences at the moment, I have – of course – no real reply. As far as I am concerned, the human voice, and I mean by that the human in the voice, meets a very specific need in me. People tend to search for themselves in other people, and the human voice is the most direct way to achieve this.”

In conversation this past December with his son Michael Pärt, chairman of the Arvo Pärt Centre’s supervisory board, and a music editor and producer in his own right, we get to talking about how to explain the enduring appeal of his father’s music.

Michael Pärt
© Birgit Püve

“Without doubt, his music has been referred to as being timeless, or eternal. Or even suffused with sadness,” Michael says. “But all of those adjectives go hand in hand with hope and consolation, especially during times of trouble, personal trouble or global trouble.” It is that “music speaks to him from a humane angle,” Michael emphasises.

“We live in the world, the sun rises and it sets, and lot happens around us. And the music might fit into our environment, or it might not fit. And more often than not there seems to be some kind of ‘harmonic’ relationship with that human and how the music speaks to that human. In context with that human’s environment, historical, geographical, political, whatever that is.”

We speak a little about the present political context. “What’s happening in Russia right now isn’t leaving him cold – my father made a statement about this, which you can find on our website. It talks about how we, humankind (and this goes back to an earlier statement he made on Covid) he says that humankind is one organism. So it’s a very human-centred approach. He put out a statement right at the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine.”

Pärt is special among living composers in choosing to (and being able to) confidently speak to an audience of humanity in its entirety. To do so without seeming excessively grand, or pompous, is no mean feat. Anchoring the music within a personal Orthodox spirituality is certainly a help in this.

Pärt’s Salve Regina performed in 2020 by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

“The music becomes his expression of delivering the message of prayer,” Michael says. “So the music becomes a kind of key, to have access to the text, for those who search for it. The content of the prayer”, its spiritual content, “the music and the text, they intertwine. And that connection can be especially close.”

Simultaneous with writing music with spiritual content, Pärt has not shied away from using his platform as an artist to make public statements. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed in 2006. “My father dedicated all the performances of his works during the 2006-07 season to her,” Micheal explains. Arvo Pärt said at the time: “Politkovskaya staked her entire talent, energy and – in the end – even her life on saving people who had become victims of the abuses prevailing in Russia.”

One of his most significant works this century, the Fourth Symphony (2004) was dedicated to Russian dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was imprisoned at the time. “And Da Pacem Domine,” Michael points out, “is very often connected to the tragedy of the Madrid bombings, in the spring of 2004, because it was premiered later that year. But it was completed just a couple of days after the bombings took place.” While Pärt’s music might have aspirations to timelessness, it also exists in particular historical and political contexts.

Arvo Pärt’s Da Pacem Domine performed in 2020 by Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Concerto Copenhagen

The emotional impact of his music has attracted many film directors too, one reason that his music has remained close to public consciousness. In the 1960s and 70s Pärt himself spent years composing music for film, in Estonia. Michael Pärt and I discuss this part of his career: “it was a time in his life when he was in a process of searching for his musical fingerprint, for his language. And during this time, not many concert works appeared in his worklist.” Between 1968 and 1976 the Third Symphony is Pärt’s only major recognised work.

“There are some other pieces that used to be in the list of works, that were withdrawn, because they didn’t satisfy him. The tools that he had, he didn’t like. While still being a forerunner of the avant-garde movement in the Soviet Union… [but] he was writing film music because he needed to make a living, and this was just part of the process of being able to do so.”

The stylistic opening in Pärt’s compositional work emerged in 1976, with the simple, diatonic and triadic approach to musical material later dubbed “tintinnabuli”. It has been this music, from the late 70s through to the 1980s, that is most familiar to audiences. It was a period that coincided with the decision by Pärt and his family to emigrate, in 1980.

Despite disruption to his personal circumstances, for the music “all of the things had kind of fallen into place, everything really tightly knit together,” Michael recounts. “The music started to flourish as the creative direction changed, the texts that motivated him changed, and he was able to express himself more fully through his work.”

As board chairman of the Arvo Pärt Centre, responsible for how Pärt’s music interacts with the wider culture, these concerns remain relevant. On how the music is used in cinema, for instance, “when the music fits the context of the film, then my father gladly gives his consent for this to happen,” Michael says. “From a practical point of view I would say that it is important to encourage filmmakers to explore lesser-known pieces, in order to give them a fresh lease of life... But this requires a lot of effort!”

I ask musicologist Tim Rutherford-Johnson about comparisons between Pärt and other composers of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Does he see similarities with Pärt’s Ukrainian contemporary, Valentyn Silvestrov, whose music also has great emotional poignancy and spiritual affect? “So much of Silvestrov’s music is concerned with endings – codas, epilogues, postludes. But I don’t hear the same thing in Pärt though. I think that’s something to do with the nature of nostalgia. Pärt’s music never feels like it is looking back in sadness, or with a sense of loss. What Pärt got from medieval music, and his years of studying it, was a technique, rather than material: a way to move forward.”

“The bits of Pärt that stand out for me are those moments of revelation and discovery that come from within the tintinnabuli system,” Tim continues, “the ending of Passio, when multi-syllable words pop out of the text, the moment-to-moment switches from dissonance to consonance. On the score of Für Alina, Pärt draws a flower over that one change of harmony in the left hand – this is music that celebrates the things that it finds.”

“Pärt’s story is deeply woven with the story of the Soviet Union and Europe in the 1980s,” Tim continues. “But in quite a different way to many of his contemporaries. I’m not sure ‘hopeful’ is the right word for his music – that suggests a denigration of Silvestrov, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Ustvolskaya and all the others who stayed behind, which I don’t want to imply – but it’s clear he was able to take a different view after moving to the West.”

Its commercial success in the West was marked too. Tim suggests that this might owe something to “the Euro-orientalist perspective that Western Europeans often had towards their East European counterparts; and Cold War soft power narratives on top of that.” But, he continues, “what I find striking today about Pärt’s music, especially since much of that particular dust has now settled, is how little it depends on all of that for its aesthetic and emotional effect. Which is not something I think can be said so surely about many of his peers. Pärt’s music, for me, has a genuinely timeless quality.”

Arvo Pärt Centre, Laulasmaa
© Kaupo Kikkas

Michael Pärt would agree. But even timeless music needs to be protected from decay. For the Arvo Pärt Centre, run by the Pärt family and a staff of sixteen, this has been an ongoing concern for over a decade. Usually this kind of work is left for when composers pass on, with their papers being taken in great crates and vans to an archive or library. But in this case the work has been done while the composer is still alive, to set up a firm basis for this music to continue to interact with the wider world, and also to provide an epicentre for its focused exploration.

“It’s so easy to get distracted, to lose focus … given all the daily noise that is inside us,” Michael says. In Laulasmaa, “out here, in the forest … you experience the silence around you. The listener in harmony with the environment.”

This article was sponsored by the Estonian Business and Innovation Agency