Choral music, in the European tradition, is woven tightly into the story of the Mass. Through the centuries, composers have found inspiration and fame setting the parts of the mass to music. Perhaps it’s the idea of creative limitation, where the artist finds inspiration in set lyrics and performance times.
Perhaps the content of the words and the context from which they are drawn. Could anything be more worthy of musical expression than the fundamental question-and-answer which is at the heart of life, and of the Christian tradition? It is this, after all, that inspired the enduring tones of Gregorian Chant.
Arvo Pärt, the celebrated Estonian composer said: “when I heard Gregorian Chant for the first time … at that moment I felt at once utterly deprived and rich. Utterly naked, too. I felt like the prodigal son returning to his father’s home. I had nothing, I had accomplished nothing.”
Born in Soviet-ruled Estonia, Arvo Pärt’s early work as a composer was undertaken in the context of a regimented artistic world in which music could not be separated from the politics and aims of the state.
Though he produced a number of works in his early years, it was not until Pärt heard Gregorian chant and emigrated from the Soviet bloc that he developed his distinctive style, which has led to him being labelled ‘the greatest living composer’. Pärt’s melding of modernist principles and traditional religious forms is an antidote for the listener who finds the atonality or minimalism of many modern composers to be a barrier to their enjoyment.
In February, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, along with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, will explore not just the quality of Pärt’s compositions, but his unique harmony with the music of the old world, particularly religious music. The performance alternates between Pärt and some of Bach’s music for the Mass, playing their expressions of the eternal off against one another.
The highlight of the performance is Pärt’s Da Pacem Domine (Give Peace, o Lord), a slow, beseeching, lament, mirrored and ornamented by Bach’s Komm Jesu Komm (Come, Jesus, Come), which calls for the assistance of God, but with energy and hope. Bach was devout Lutheran, and Pärt is an Orthodox Christian.
Each composer brings not just his time and personal experience to his work, but the unique perspective of their own understanding of the Christian tradition. Since 2010, Pärt has been the world’s most performed living composer. His work has been an influence beyond the classical world and has been cited by both Bjork and R.E.M. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is considered one of the world’s foremost interpreters of his musical vision, especially given their ongoing focus on the work of Estonian composers.
The opportunity to hear their collaboration with the ACO is not to be missed. I recommend you listen to the Choir performing some of Pärt’s works before you attend, their albums are available on most streaming services. Then, in the dark of the performance room, close your eyes, and see and hear the voices of past and present in conversation, participating in the endless question/answer which is at the centre of all faith, beauty and the lives of every individual.
One performance only on Sunday 3 February. Student concessions available. Tickets available through the Australian Chamber Orchestra website: www.aco.com.au or www.sydneyoperahouse.com