For My Daughter: Listen for the Bell

In music, truth.

We have many ways of expressing our feelings about life and death, loss and loneliness. The brevity and often sadness of existence weighs uniquely on the human experience. We see these themes depicted in art, expoused in poetry, and examined on the stage. Novels have been dedicated to these topics; films create melodrama by playing on our sympathies for those who are suffering. But, for me, music, that most abstract of the arts, gets to the essential truth.

Arvo Pärt is a compemporary composer from Estonia. In 1977, he composed a brief work following the news of the death of the great English composer Benjamin Britten, a man he had never met but whose music he had come to greatly admire. Both Pärt and Britten will feature much later in this blog, but I thought that Pärt’s work had something to say about the enduring legacy of JS Bach. And, frankly, this work provides me with something I want to say to my daughter, who is in pain and suffering today.

The Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten opens and ends with silence. These silent beats are written directly into the music and are an important part of the score. Breaking the silence is a bell, which is struck nearly silently. Lines of music begin to weave their magic. As more instruments enter, the texture becomes thick with descending tones. The dynamics swell and then retreat, finally resolving at a low chord. The bell reenters. And then silence. In total, about 8 minutes.

Let’s unpack what Pärt is doing here. The work is scored for stringed orchestra (2 sections of violins, violas, cellos, double basses) and bell. The bell has a solitary tone: an A, which is struck four times at the start at pianissimo. The violins enter, playing partial descending A minor scales, first A-G, then A-F, A-E, etc. Subsequent instruments enter, playing the same descending scales at progressively slower paces (ratios are 1:2:4:8:16, so the basses are playing at 1/16th speed of the first violins). This is, technically speaking, a prolation or mensuration canon, a compositional technique that Pärt plucked from the Renaissance.

The violins start in the upper registers and, as more instruments enter, the music trends down into the lower registers, adding layers of complexity and depth to the music. The various voices split into multiple parts, all descending like tears and searching for chordal and emotional resolution. In fact, they are all seeking notes that will form a final A minor chord. In bar 65, the first violins play middle C, a tone they will hold right through to the end of the piece. One by one, the canon is decronstructed as more voices find their final tone and hold it. The second violins are next with the bottom A to middle C and so on. The dynamics of the music swell to fortissimo, before retreating. At last, the double basses find the low A, completing the puzzle and the orchestra holds the final chord of A minor for 30 beats (5 bars plus 2). A final strike of the bell is made just as the strings stop playing, its tone seems to emerge from the orchestra like a last shimmering light before the darkness of the final silences take hold.

And it is this moment that is pure magic and, I think, the key to the work. As I noted above, that the tone of the bell is an A. But, like all instruments, it has overtones, those additional tones that are produced by subsequent vibrations of the instrument. And the overtone that is clearest is a C#. This final overtone from the bell transforms the final chord from A minor (A-C-E) to A major (A-C#-E). This is not a new technique, although I am not aware of a composer using an overtone to create this effect. Baroque composers used what is called either a picardy or happy third to creates harmonic resolution to a major key from the expected tonic minor. Bach used these picardy chords frequently, bringing in shades of light into darkness, snatching a ray of hope from the pit of despair.

And that is what I think that Pärt is saying here: Listen for the bell, in music as in life.

Arvo Pärt, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten:

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