Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten for String Orchestra and Bell

Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten is a determinant work in the legacy of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. It is one of the earliest compositions establishing his late, most typical stylistic period, characterized by a particularly ascetic concentration and simplicity of the expressive devices, greater compactness of the musical forms and the performing ensembles (instrumentations), a particularly spiritualized thematic content related to his conversion to Orthodoxy as a personal choice, and a specific compositional technique which he called “tintinnabulation” or “tintinnabuli style.” The etymology is derived from the Latin word tintinnabulum – ‘bell’, which perhaps implies another symbolic connection between this particular piece and the origination of the new ‘tintinnabuli’ style that brought world fame to the composer shortly after his defection from the USSR to Western Germany in the 1980s. What serves as the basis underlying this style is the spiritual understanding of the interaction between Heaven and Earth, between the Absolute and humankind, between the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven on the one hand, and the earthly existence on the other. In technical terms, this understanding is materialized in the compositional technique through a very specific and strictly limited and regulated type of modal-tonal interaction between two types of polyphonic voices: 1 – melodic, i. e. alternating in a gamut-like succession through the notes of a given mode, and 2 – “tintinnabolic,” that is, moving in the manner of arpeggio through the successive notes of the main triad of the same mode. These seemingly rather simple technical principles underlying the framework devised by Pärt for his late compositional style have brought him to ascetically marked aesthetic areas with unusually high concentration of musical content, in contrast to his earlier essays in dodecaphonism, serialism, and previously, modernistic neo-classicism. In Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, the tintinnabuli technique is implemented in the context of a large prolation canon, where the various parts state the same musical material at different rates, proportionally correlative to each other.  The funeral bell, announcing symbolically the death of English composer Benjamin Britten, for whose music Pärt felt particularly strong reverence although he failed to make his personal acquaintance while Britten was still alive, is like a red line running through this peculiar musical epigraph, and in the closing passages of the work seems to evoke with its overtone row the baroque effect called “Picardy third”, which typically symbolizes hope, confidence, and the expectation of the Redeemer.

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