About this work
Arvo Pärt composed Tabula Rasa in 1977, shortly after emerging from his self-imposed period of intense study and reflection to demonstrate what would become his characteristic musical technique: the so-called tintinnabuli method. The work is thus a prime example of the technique and demonstrates how, even in its early stages, Pärt's new and innovative musical language was connected indelibly with his sense of musical process and form. One not only hears the tintinnabula system working itself out in this piece, but also gets a clear sense of the aesthetic and spiritual underpinnings of the method and its implications for large-scale musical structure.
The work calls for two violin soloists supported by an ensemble of orchestral strings and an obbligato prepared piano. These three textural layers -- soloists, prepared piano, and orchestra -- assume distinct roles within the musical process at the heart of the piece. Stated simply, the tintinnabuli method as practiced by Pärt in this and numerous other works combines simple, usually stepwise diatonic melodies with ever-present interactions of tones from the tonic, or home, chord. There is thus both a strong sense of harmonic stability as well as a continually shifting surface of consonances and dissonances: as the melodic lines develop, the individual notes alternately concord and clash with the "tintinnabulating" tonic chord tones. In Tabula Rasa, the interaction of the two kinds of lines, as dispersed among the three textural layers, serves not only to provide the moment-to-moment interest of the piece, but to delineate the shape that the piece eventually comes to assume.
The work, which runs about half an hour in performance, is divided into two movements contrasting in their tempi and meter. The first movement, titled "Ludus," or "to play," is the more nimble of the two, and proceeds with delicate but consistent momentum. It begins with stark, loud A's in the violins, separated by four octaves and followed by a gaping, bar-long rest; these two gestures set the parameters of the rest of the movement. Over the course of several variations, which are separated by rests of decreasing length, the soloists move gradually, with arpeggiated figurations on the tonic chord, from the middle of their ranges outward to the extremes articulated in the first bar; at the same time, the orchestra slowly unveils an ever-expanding melodic line that gradually adds new hues to the harmonic color of the movement. The second movement, "Silentium," seems at first to deal much less with silence than the previous movement's conspicuously shrinking rests. In a slower tempo, a new key, and triple meter, this movement recasts much of the musical materials of the previous movement, and creates audible processes of ever-widening melodic arcs. The meaning of the movement's title becomes clear at the end: as the melody approaches its final tonic note it gradually grows quieter until, at what should be the piece's conclusion, the ensemble fades to silence and the final note is only implied.
Curated by Vitaly Vatulya, Saxophonist