Yikes – I definitely remember at some point deciding that I was going to steer clear of too-familiar choices here, and look what's come up, one of the most well-known slabs of modern classical soundtrack music there is. This piece really is up there with the second movement of Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs as a short-cut route to post-religious grief, isn't it?
Well, of course it is, but I like to cling to the idea that it's also a bit better than that as well.
Pärt is one of those composers who everyone pretty much 'got' in the early 90s, swept up by the dread 'holy minimalism' banner that someone must have thought was a compliment once. Terrible term as it is, if it applies to any of the three composers it's most commonly pinned to – the other two being Górecki and Tavener – it's easy to concede a fair cop in Pärt's case. His music since 1976 has been defined by a number of minimalist-like strategies for composing large amounts of music with small means. With the right compositional procedure, six bars of material and a Latin copy of the Gospel of St John you can pretty much recreate his hour-long Passio in your own home. Sounds like minimalism to me; and it doesn't take much reading of his workslist to spot that this is a man whose faith is extremely important to him.
Except that there is much more to Pärt than the 'holy minimalism' tag will allow. As well as being a deeply spiritual man, it is worth remembering that this is the composer who first introduced – in defiance of Soviet doctrine – 12-tone composition into Estonia in 1960 with the orchestral piece Nekrolog; rather than the monk-like character of his popular portrayal, in the studio he is known to challenge those around him to press-up contests. And his music is as frequently secular as sacred.
Cantus is perhaps the most minimal, most process-based of all his works, yet in defiance of the 'holy minimalism' tag, it is also one of his secular ones, being a lament for a fellow composer. To quote the composer himself in the sleevenotes to ECM 1275 817 764-2:
Why did the date of Benjamin Britten's death – December 4, 1976 – touch such a chord in me? During this time I was obviously at the point where I could recognize the magnitude of such a loss. Inexplicable feelings of guilt, more than that even, arose in me. I had just discovered Britten for myself. Just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music – I had had the impression of the same kind of purity in the ballads of Guillaume de Machaut. And besides, for a long time I had wanted to meet Britten personally – and now it would not come to that.
The other aspect to Pärt's work that is often overlooked is the awareness within his music of the rest of the musical world. This is not something that, for example, might be claimed for much Tavener's music, which for many years found its only sustenance in Greek Orthodox chant. Once again, the popular perception of Pärt as a solitary composer writing sacred chants to the exclusion of the external, secular world doesn't fit. Witness, for a start, the numerous quotations – Bach in particular, but also Tchaikovsky and others – in his music. It is to this side of Pärt's nature that Cantus belongs.
Lamenting his personal grief at the loss of a lately discovered and greatly respected colleague, Pärt chose to distill this grief – "just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music" – into the purest music he could find capable of sustaining the weight of serious expression: an A minor scale, an A minor arpeggio and a tolling bell. Western music has few more funereal materials than these. (Except, perhaps, C minor…) If you want to see how the piece is put together, Paul Hillier's excellent book on the composer is highly recommended, but what you need to know is obvious enough from a first listen: the descending scale is layered several times across the whole string orchestra, in different tempi, so that the whole effect is of one long drag down the scale, eventually coming to rest on a great fat waft of A minor. Glenn Branca has done similar things in his later symphonies, replacing guitars for strings.
What I admire most about the work is the fact that it is such a beautifully pure exposition of material. The whole is simply one sound, one mechanism for 5 minutes, but the mechanism unwinds itself in an infinitely subtle and variable way. Rather than any of Tavener's works, or even Górecki's, Cantus deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Ligeti's Lontano and Lux aeterna. Yet where Ligeti couldn't resist the lure of Mitteleuropan developmental forms – and thus built signposts and points of tension and release into even his most amorphous forms – Pärt leans back and rides the sound out. Surfing on sound waves. By the end, as the whole structure breaks over you, you can't help taking a very physical, secular pleasure in the whole thing; Pärt's masterstroke, and perhaps a key to the man, is to leave the final leaden circles of the funeral bell hanging in the air as you open your eyes again.