Brief biography of Pärt

Pärt studied composition at the Tallinn Conservatory in Estonia after which he became recording engineer with Estonian Radio. During his early career he wrote music for the stage and for film and, although he had little access to contemporary trends in Western music, he was often at the forefront of the introduction of new techniques in works such as Nekrolog of 1960, which was the first Estonian composition to employ serial technique, a compositional process in which the twelve tones in a scale are manipulated mathematically as well as musically. He continued with serialism through the mid-1960s after which he began to make use of collage technique in works such as Collage on B-A-C-H. He caused a controversy with his Credo of 1968, which was banned in the USSR.

Pärt has occasionally engaged in periods of contemplative silence. The most significant of these ended in 1976 after which his music was transformed. His subsequent compositions use an innovative technique he devised called ‘tintinnabula’. When asked about this new style Pärt declared:

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, two voices. I build with 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.

In 1977 he composed three works using this new technique that remain among his most well-loved: Fratres, Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten and Tabula Rasa. He emigrated in 1980 eventually settling in Berlin with his wife Nora and their two sons. The creative period after the emigration includes many settings of religious texts, often in Latin, and many of them on a large scale, such as Passio (1982), Te Deum (1984-86, rev. 1993) and Litany (1994). Smaller scale works such as the Magnificat (1989) and The Beatitudes (1990) have become standard repertoire for choirs all over the world and much of his music has been recorded.

Pärt has been the recipient of numerous honors and awards including election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In February 2007 the Best Choral Performance Grammy was awarded to Paul Hillier, conductor of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, for Pärt’s Da Pacem. Most recently Pärt was described as “one of the most original voices of our time”, in a tribute which helped him to win the 2008 Léonie Sonning Music Prize.

Pärt’s tintinnabula music has had an extraordinary degree of success in the popular market. On January 6, 2009 the CD of Pärt’s music entitled Alina was #2,847 in the sales rank for music – an extraordinary achievement for a contemporary classical composer. His discography numbers more than forty discs with many popular works such as his Passio (1982) having been recorded several times. His music has been used in dozens of movies, including several blockbusters such as “There will be blood” (2007 | Paul Thomas Anderson) and “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004 | Michael Moore).