About this work
Composed in 1968, Credo stands as the last work Arvo Pärt composed before entering the long period of compositional silence that preceded the first "tintinnabular" works of the late 1970s (see, for example, Pari intervallo and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten). Credo, like Collage über B-A-C-H from a few years before, embodies the musical, aesthetic, and spiritual conflicts that brought on this period of reflection and study--a period that saw the composition of only two "public" works: Symphony No. 3, and the little-known and less-played cantata Laul Armastatule, which the composer later withdrew from his portfolio. Also as in the Collage, the musical figure--and the actual musical figures-of J.S. Bach play important thematic, structural, and (perhaps most importantly) symbolic roles within the work. Though not by any means liturgical, the text is based on a combination of rite and scripture.
The beginning of the work alters the opening of the liturgical Credo ("I believe in One God" becomes "I believe in Jesus Christ"), and follows it with two lines from Matthew 5:38-39: "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil." Soviet officials saw the title and text as political provocation. Though the composer insisted on the absence of any political agenda, his own devout religiosity led authorities to read Credo as a manifesto of passive resistance to an oppressive government. Indeed, the premiere may not have even happened if a particular official hadn't been out of town at the time; after the first performance it was banned in the Soviet Union for several years.
The conflicting aesthetic and social/religious ideologies that informed the work are represented clearly in its constituent musical materials. The immediate opposition is an obvious and rather perfunctory one: good vs. evil. The former is represented in the outer sections of the work by a standard chord progression in C major, which is taken from and which eventually becomes Bach's familiar C major prelude. The latter finds its most melodramatic representation in the central cacophonous passage, notated by filling in the entire staff with ominous black ink.
A closer analysis, however, reveals that the symbolic distinction isn't quite so clear-cut. As the first section of the work ends, the standard harmonic motion from C to G turns out to be the beginning of a dodecaphonic tone row. The row, which by nature represents the nullification of terms like "consonance" and "dissonance," is in fact made of a standard device of functional harmony: the circle of fifths. The orchestra moves from C to G, then on to D, A, E, B, F#... adding tones until every pitch in the chromatic scale is represented. At this point the Bach prelude returns, but altered drastically: it is given in retrograde inversion, or upside down and backwards. (Paul Hillier, in his commentary on the work, sees this distortion as a representation of Christian teachings twisted into false doctrine). The chorus likewise expands into a twelve-tone cluster, on the conveniently dodecasyllabic phrase "oculum pro oculo, dentem pro dente." The utter dissonance finally breaks all doctrinal bounds, as the twelve tones melt into unannotated black bands of fffsound. Shortly after the return to dodecaphony and traditional notation, however, a C pedal appears in the basses, to which the ensemble gradually gravitates. The piano renders the entire Bach Prelude once more, before the orchestra crystallizes on a broad C major triad.