Pärt: Fratres for Strings and Percussion

Arvo Pärt was born September 11, 1935, in Paide, Estonia, and currently lives in Berlin, Germany. He composed Fratres in 1977 as a work for string quintet plus wind quintet, and it was premiered that year in Tallinn, Estonia, by the early-music ensemble Hortus Musicus. Pärt arranged the piece for various forces in ensuing years. The version played here, for string orchestra and percussion (claves plus bass drum or tom-tom), dates from 1991 and is dedicated to the Estonian composer and conductor Eduard Tubin, who had died in 1982. Neeme Järvi led the only previous performances by the San Francisco Symphony, in January 1986. Performance time: about ten minutes. 

About the Composer, and about Tintinnabulation

For thirty-five years Arvo Pärt has occupied a prominent place among the composers of Eastern European origin who are associated with a musical style sometimes called the New Simplicity or New Spirituality. Pärt grew up in an Estonia that was buffeted between the Soviets and the Nazis during World War II and then stood as a Soviet Socialist Republic until 1991. Pärt had already left his homeland. In 1980 he and his Jewish wife were granted emigration papers to re-settle in Israel, but they never made it that far. Touching down at the Vienna airport, they were surprised to be met by a representative of the music publisher Universal Edition (who had been alerted to the Pärts’ journey by Alfred Schnittke, another composer who had managed to get out of the Soviet Union). The following year, Pärt settled in Berlin, his base ever since.

In the early 1960s, Pärt began applying serial principles to his works, which led to predictable rebuke from Soviet cultural authorities and which assured that such pieces would not be performed. By the mid-’60s he was immersed in the study of Bach, and soon he began producing pieces in which modernist dissonance appeared in tense contrast to clearly defined neo-Baroque tonality. This reached an apex in his Credo (1968), which shocked Soviet officials less through its musical innovations than its title, which evoked Christianity (officially forbidden).

Credo marked a crossroads, leading Pärt to explore materials of the greatest simplicity. He began to immerse himself in medieval and Renaissance chant and polyphonic music—the very title Fratres, meaning “brothers,” may suggest monastic connotations—and he started to focus on the mystical energy born of the simultaneous sounding of notes. By 1976 he seized the essence of the style that has served him ever since: a tonal technique he dubbed “tintinnabuli,” referring to bell-like resonances—sometimes involving actual bells but more commonly conveyed in his music by orchestral, chamber, or choral groupings. In this music, the tintinnabulation parts are sounded while the melody part moves slowly in simple patterns that gravitate around the home pitch. The particular behavior of tintinnabulation and melody parts is strictly regulated by some theoretical pattern of interaction devised by the composer for each new piece.

Pärt explained his tintinnabulation method in a program note he wrote in 1984 for ECM records: “Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers—in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises—and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. Here, I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements—with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials—with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”

That is the emotional essence of Fratres. For more details, read on.

Fratres, Step by Step

The tintinnabuli principle is easily apprehended in Fratres. In fact, the work’s mechanics are so clear as to allow general listeners to grasp its essence in an analytical sense. In the arrangement performed here, which Pärt made in 1991, the principal melody consists of three measures:

The first consists of four notes spread over seven beats.

The second consists of six notes over nine beats.

The third consists of eight notes over eleven beats.

The opening four-note measure is the germ of the piece. Its first two and last two notes stand at the beginning and end of the succeeding two phrases, which are “extended” from the middle. It is as if the sentence “My name is John” morphed successively into “My name in fact is John” and then “My name in honest fact is John,” and those three sentence formulations were stated one right after the other. Then, without a break, Pärt inverts the melody, meaning that intervals that formerly moved down now move up, and vice versa. Imagine that the sentences “My name is John” and so on are propped up on a mirror; the first time through you read the sentences themselves, and the second time you read their reflected image, which, naturally, consists again of three measures of seven, nine, and eleven beats.

The melody, however, is not a single line. Instead, it is made up of two notes unrolling in harmony, parallel to each other, at the interval of a tenth. You could picture them as two people walking in the same direction lengthwise across the steps of a wide staircase, though one considerably higher on the staircase than the other. At each new note they step simultaneously to the stair above or below, or (at the midpoint of each measure) across several stairs—but in each case one of the people remains ten stairs above the other. To make the game plan more interesting, Pärt injects a third voice, a third person. This character walks crosswise along the same staircase to the same rhythm, and its four notes expand much as other parts do; but rather than walk to a consecutive step up or down, its nature is to either take each pace along the same step or to jump over several. Things are arranged so its trajectory remains in the space between the two melody notes, so nobody bumps into anybody else.

In the course of this piece, which lasts about ten minutes, these three lines—the two “melody” voices a tenth apart, plus the fill-in voice in the middle—go through this dance nine times. Each go-round is separated by two measures of an unassuming rhythmic pattern on percussion. This solemn tattoo serves as punctuation. Every repetition of the melody, however, is transposed wholesale to a lower pitch level, each time moving down by the interval of a third. Picture our stair-walkers playing out their pattern, stopping to wait for the percussion punctuation, and then going through their motions again, but this time from a starting position that is two steps lower—and then the next time two steps lower than that, and so on. As the overall pitch gets lower and lower, the music falls progressively within the range of lower-voiced instruments. The music that was first played by three violins, therefore, is given upon repetition to two violins and viola, and then moves progressively into a realm that encompasses cellos and double basses, with the violins by now playing in the very lowest notes of their range. As a result, the pitch level is not all that changes. So does the nature of the sound, the timbre of the string orchestra itself.

Another thing: the steps in this staircase are not equidistant from each other. If you were to climb up this staircase, you would sometimes lift your leg just a little to rise to the next step, and sometimes a lot. You could spell the basic scale as A—B-flat—C-sharp—D—E—F—G—A on the way up, and then the same backwards as you descend. As the patterns are played out at different pitch levels, the melodic lines may not be transposed literally. Instead, they must sometimes be adjusted so a tone falls on the closest available note of the scale. If an exact transposition of the melody would require a C-natural, for example, that note will be adjusted to nearby C-sharp, since C-natural falls outside the scale Pärt has defined as his playing field. It’s not a standard western scale, and it lends an exotic tinge to the piece’s character. That the scale is based on the note A is made clear by a drone sounded down at basement level by a few cellos and double basses. The drone consists of the notes A and E, a combination that, to western ears, defines A as the tonic, the fundamental tone. The drone sustains uninterrupted through the entire ten-minute piece as an unwavering foundation. Everything progresses slowly, and the volume swells halfway through and then sinks back to near-silence.

There you have the rules of a process that unrolls to meditative effect. It certainly lodged in its composer’s mind. After Fratres was unveiled, in 1977, Pärt created or authorized new arrangements or elaborations over the course of many years. At last count, his publisher was listing sixteen different versions for a wide variety of forces.

James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: Rudolf Werthen conducting I Fiamminghi: The Orchestra of Flanders (Telarc)  |  Neeme Järvi conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (Chandos)  |  Paavo Järvi conducting the Estonian State Symphony Orchestra (Virgin Classics)

Reading: Arvo Pärt, by Paul Hiller (Oxford University Press)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt, edited by Andrew Shenton (Cambridge University Press)  |  Set to appear this fall is Arvo Pärt in Conversation, a collection of essays and interviews (Dalkey Archive Press)