About this work
Many listeners identify something inherently spiritual, or at least meditative, in minimalist and proto-minimalist music, and many composers of this type of music have imbued their works with their own religious convictions and philosophies. Steve Reich's work took a profoundly devout turn after the composer's renewed connection to his Jewish heritage; La Monte Young's obsession with eternity is a blend of eastern philosophy and Mormon cosmology. Likewise, in Pärt's Te Deum from 1986, the composer's deep belief in his Russian Orthodox faith resonates throughout the work, shaping its musical details as well as its overall generative processes. Te Deum is composed in Pärt's signature "tintinnabula" style. Developed after a long period in which Pärt produced no public compositions, the tintinnabula technique offered Pärt the means with which to explore tonality without the implied "functional" trajectory of traditional harmony. By creating a texture in which the tonal center was always or almost always present, Pärt was free to explore the relationships of resistance and surrender between tonic and nontonic pitches and chords. To achieve this, he arranges the members of the ensemble into groups consisting of two kinds of voices. Some lines are melodic, and follow gentle diatonic contours, usually in stepwise motion (though, as we shall see, this practice is altered somewhat in Te Deum). Against the melodic line(s) are set "tintinnabula" voices that maintain the presence of the tonic by confining themselves to tonic chord tones only. The melodic and tintinnabular lines interact according to a set of rules that itself is variable but that, once in place, is usually observe rather consistently. For example, at the point in Te Deum where the third choir first enters in four-part harmony, the tenors maintain a tintinnabular relationship with the melodic basses. The tenors consistently sing the nearest chord tone of the prevailing D minor tonic, above the melody line. Thus, while the basses ascend from A to middle C, the tenors sing the D just above. When the basses reach the D on "CON-fitemur," the tenors leap up to F. Scored for three choirs, strings, prepared piano, and wind harp, the work is divided into three large sections divided by breaks; each of these is divided into several smaller, somewhat cohesive sections strung together without pause. Each of the 29 verses, plus a final Amen and Sanctus, is sung in unmetered chant-like fashion, followed by metered reiteration by choir or instruments. Though based on the well-known fifth-century hymn, Pärt does not incorporate actual Gregorian chant into the melodic material. The chant-like melodies are actually constructed according to modified tintinnabula principles. As in the earliest tintinnabula vocal pieces, like Missa Sillabica, the arc and angle of the melodic contours is determined by the syllable length of words. A four-syllable word ascends or descends to the melodic center from four diatonic steps away. In Te Deum, however, Pärt elaborates these ascents and descents with lilting, arpeggiated leaps, adding an extra layer of expressive nuance. The tintinnabula technique itself is full of religious symbolism. Pärt describes the melodic lines as having an element of mortality, sin, imperfection, while the tintinnabular voices represent eternity, forgiveness, and redemption. The concurrence of tonic stability and melodic dissonance can thus be seen as an allegory for the eternal soul within the mortal body, or perhaps the paradoxical mixture of godhood and manhood embodied by the messiah. This symbolism is particularly important in Te Deum, for Pärt's goal was to suggest eternity "by delicately removing one piece-one particle of time-out of the flow of infinity."
Curated by Maria Nemtsova, Pianist