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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.


BORN: September 11, 1935. Paide, Estonia. Currently living in Berlin, Germany

COMPOSED: 1977. The version played here dates in its final form from 1991

WORLD PREMIERE: April 29, 1983. In Stockholm, Sweden

US PREMIERE: March 10, 1984. Alice Tully Hall in New York, NY

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1986. Neeme Järvi led. MOST RECENT—October 2012. Vasily Petrenko conducted

INSTRUMENTATION. String orchestra and percussion (claves plus bass drum or tom-tom)

DURATION: About 9 mins 

THE BACKSTORY Arvo 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. 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. The following year, Pärt settled in Berlin, his base ever since.

Following earlier forays into serialism and neo-Classicism, Pärt began to immerse himself in medieval and Renaissance church music in the 1970s (the very title Fratres, meaning “brothers,” may suggest monastic connotations). 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 MUSIC The tintinnabuli principle is easily apprehended in Fratres. Here, the melody 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 nine 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. 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 steadily 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. 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, the fundamental tone. The drone sustains uninterrupted through the entire 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

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

(June 2019)