Arvo Pärt


About this work

Arvo Pärt's Trisagion (1992) blurs the distinction between evocation and portrayal, expression and imitation. Written in honor of the 500th anniversary of the parish of Prophet Elias in Ilomantsi, the music itself seems to take on a devotional attitude. It is composed in Pärt's distinctive "tintinnabula" style -- a spare contrapuntal structure rich with religious symbolism. Moreover, the structure and phraseology of the work -- the contours that the lines follow -- are derived in a very real way from a religious text, even though the work is composed for strings only.

The tintinnabula style as seen at work in Trisagion involves the combination of two kinds of voices: one type follows gentle, diatonic, scalar lines along stepwise paths; the other type, called tintinnabula lines (after the Latin word for "bell"), engages in counterpoint with the melodic voice by leaping between tones above and below it, always confining itself to tones within the tonic chord. The result is a harmonic atmosphere in which the tonic center is always present, but frequently engaged in a relationship of resistance with non-tonic-chord tones.

The relationship between melodic and tintinnabula voices suggests numerous religious metaphors (some of them identified by Pärt himself): sin and redemption, the opposition and convergence of the spirit and the body, Jesus' mixed ancestry of humanity and divinity. This meaning is made even more explicit in the Slavonic text (also given in translation) which underlies the score. This is the logical extension of the technique used a year earlier in Silouan's Song; in the earlier work, subtitled "My soul yearns after the Lord...," the "text" is taken from the writings of the sagely monk whose name the work bears. In both cases, unbeknownst to the uninformed listener, every stop and go in the music is dictated by the syllabic number and accentuation, phrasing, and punctuation of the text. To those listeners ignorant of the Slavonic language, this probably has an effect quite similar to that of listening to the Slavonic prayer itself: though words pass by without comprehension, one identifies the devotional feeling and the calm, deliberate declamation of prayer.