Für Alina

Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Für Alina, a brief and poignantly spare work for piano, represents the essence of the so-called "tintinnabula" technique for which Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has become famous. The work was composed in 1976, a year in which he emerged from a five-year period of intense study and reflection. Pärt's study of medieval and Renaissance church music inspired a new approach to tonality, one that recast triadic tonality within an entirely new kind of musical syntax. Für Alina was the first piece in which this new triadic language coalesced into a consistent method of composition. Simply put, this technique, known as the tintunnabula style for the bell-like sonority it creates, involves two different lines moving in a consistent relationship with each other, one of them moving in a mostly stepwise fashion along notes of the diatonic scale (that is, without chromatic inflections), somewhat after the manner of plainchant, the other moving in tandem with the first but landing only on pitches contained in the tonic triad, or the chord of the piece's home key. This creates an engaging combination of harmonic stability, melodic motion, and occasional shimmering dissonances. While Pärt's formula for tintinnabula-style counterpoint would eventually grow more complex -- tying the lengths of melodic scales to the lengths of words or phrases and associating different kinds of triadic motion to different kinds of melodic shapes -- in Für Alina, the process proceeds in a somewhat freer melodic fashion, with more leaps and turns in the scalar line than one generally encounters in later works. Also, the absence of precise rhythmic notation places greater emphasis on the relationships of the pitches -- which, after all, was the central feature of this newly discovered style. The piece begins with a pair of low, sustained Bs at the bottom of the keyboard, which are sustained with the pedal nearly to the end. The simple, two-part counterpoint places both hands in the upper range of the instrument, their phrases unfolding in fluid gestures that gradually grow note-by-note from a simple half-step motion to an angular eight-note line, before gradually shrinking again to a tiny but intense collection of pitches. A piano dynamic marking prevails throughout. It is this microscopic focus found in the stark lines of Für Alina that would become the defining feature of Pärt's music, even as his tintinnabula technique grew more complex and colorful.