Kanon Pokajanen

Arvo Pärt

Kanon Pokajanen

About this work

Arvo Pärt's setting of the Kanon Pokajanen (Canon of Repentance) may be seen as the perfect culmination, embodiment, and synthesis of the composer's religious and musical philosophies. The theological principles found in the Kanon's ancient liturgical texts inform not only the music's overall aesthetic or sense of expression, but actually play a role in determining the interaction of tones at a very local level. For Pärt, style, technique, philosophy, and text are thus inextricably connected.

The texts of the Canon of Repentance played a central role in stimulating Pärt's renewed devotion to his Eastern Orthodox faith, and his deep and ongoing reflections on the words resulted in several musical compositions, including Nun eine ich in 1990 and Memento in 1994. A third piece, based on Ode IX from the Canon, was first penned in 1990 but proved to be the germinating seed for a large-scale work, which, taking Kanon Pokajanen itself as its title, incorporated a number of the Repentance Canon texts.

Virtually all of Pärt's mature works utilize the same compositional principle, commonly identified as the "tintinnabuli" style. This style is characterized by the omnipresence of consonant tonic chord tones, which resonate in bell-like fashion throughout a work (or sections thereof). Against these tonic-triad pitches, melodic lines proceed in stepwise motion away from or towards the tonic pitch. This creates a static harmonic field whose pristine surface is rippled by poignant dissonances.

This technique holds rich symbolism for Pärt, and its meaning is allied closely with the message of the Canon texts. As a body of monastic liturgy, the Canon is intoned at sunrise, greeting the sun as a metaphor for Christ. As Marina Bobrik-Frömke observes in her notes to Pärt's 1997 recording, the traditional Canon begins in the darkness of the nave, with the sanctuary door closed. At the end of the Canon, the doors -- representing the doors to heaven -- are thrown open, bathing the pews with sunlight. The lesson, then, is one of transformation and purification, of spirit overcoming flesh.

This idea is reflected in the tintinnabuli technique itself. As the composer has noted, the "tintinnabular" voices constantly reiterate the notes in the tonic chord, whose consonance represents the spiritual, the heavenly, or the divine. The other voices, passing stepwise through various moments of consonance and dissonance, suggest the material, the mortal, or the earthly. The constant reverberation between these two forces emulates the struggle towards transformation and redemption that is narrated in the texts of the Kanon Pokajanen. The penitential prayers that comprise the Odes are continually punctuated by a entreating refrain: "Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me."