Berliner Messe, for SATB chorus or soloists & organ (1990-1991)
III. Erster Alleluiavers
IV. Zweiter Alleluiavers
V. Veni Sancte Spiritus
VIII. Agnus Dei
Andrew Lucas, organ
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has always drawn attention (and occasionally criticism) for the heavily religious content of his works, and even a preliminary sampling of his Berliner Messe testifies to the depth of the composer's spiritual sensibilities. The very compositional techniques he uses here can be read as religious symbols, and the care with which he applies them enhances the profound reverence that the work conveys.
Composed for the 1990 "German Catholic Days" and premiered in an ecclesiastical context, the Berliner Messe is a liturgically complete work. The inclusion of two Alleluias and the sequence "Veni Sancte Spiritus" identifies it as a mass for Pentecost, though the added sections are optional in concert or church settings. Its original incarnation was for four SATB soloists and organ; after its premiere, the composer arranged it for strings and SATB choir.
To understand the inherent musical religiosity of the work -- a spiritual element that exists independently of this composition's liturgical nature -- one must first understand the Pärt's compositional method. After stylistic periods in which Pärt variously explored modern "Russian tonality" (à la Prokofiev and Shostakovich), serialism, and collage techniques, he suspended public composition for several years, during which time he applied himself -- as did other minimalist composers, including Steve Reich -- to the study of Medieval and Renaissance music (the influence of which can be found in the numerous Josquin-esque voice-pair textures that appear throughout the Berlin Mass). Pärt emerged from his sabbatical with an approach to composition that emphasized tonality in a new way: rather than using "functional" harmony to create tension with, and resistance to, a kind of tonic gravitational pull, he explored the sonic possibilities of an omnipresent tonic triad combined with diatonic contrapuntal dissonances. Adopting the name "Tintinnabuli" (after the complexly tonic sound of a bell), such pieces utilized paired lines: one voice -- identified conveniently by Paul Hillier as the "M-voice" -- undertook scalar passages, while the "T-voice," usually in homophony with the M, restricted itself to tonic chord tones beneath and above the melodic line. The effect is striking: an atmosphere of absolute harmonic stability filled with colorful and irregular dissonances.
This technique has poignant religious connotations. Pärt himself associates the M-voice with things mortal and carnal, like temptation, sin, and death. The triadic purity of the T-voice (for "Tintinnabula") has divine connotations, suggesting redemption, immortality, and godliness. The combination of these two voices suggests all sorts of corollaries -- man's eternal spirit housed in the mortal tabernacle, or perhaps the paradox of Christ's essential humanity and divinity.
Certainly the text and context of the mass provides numerous interpretive possibilities. In the Berliner Messe, this symbolism is most striking in Pärt's setting of the Pentecostal sequence, "Veni Sancte Spiritus." The texture is extremely sheer -- it consists entirely of duets (until the "Amens" at the end), and its translucence is enhanced by the very sparse participation of the T-voice within each of the duet passages. Moreover, the M-voice seems to mimic the ethereal sonority of the T-voice, eschewing its usual scalar figures in favor of nearly triadic motion by leap. Recalling the Biblical account of the Pentecost, the mortal voice seems to aspire the divine, as embodied by the T-voice. Such enlightenment seems to have been obtained: the Credo that follows brims with exuberance and energy. Recalling Pärt's Summa (another Credo setting) with its lilting, leaping eighth notes that jump out of the otherwise strictly homophonic texture, the tintinnabular technique used in the Credo the Berliner Messe is carefully controlled in order to allow for an unusual degree of lyricism. [Allmusic.com]
Art by Jeni Spota