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Before the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt developed his hallmark sound — a style he calls “tintinnabuli,” from the Latin for “little bells” — he wrote strident neo-classical and serial works that bucked Soviet orthodoxy. He reached an artistic crisis in 1968, and composed very little music for the next eight years. His new style emerged from his studies of Gregorian chant and other early music, and took hold in a series of landmark works from 1976–77, including Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, Fratres and Tabula Rasa. Still clashing with Communist tastemakers, he left the Soviet Union in 1980 to settle in Vienna and later Berlin. Pärt is one of the few living composers whose reach extends beyond classical audiences, no doubt stemming from the spiritual resonance of his music and the exquisite recordings released by ECM Records.
Pärt’s “tintinnabulism” is methodical in its details, but builds from the purest foundation: the triad, i.e. the three notes that define any major or minor chord. In its simplest form, one melodic line traces the home scale by step while another line leaps only to the bell-like tones of the triad. Te Deum, composed in 1984–85 and revised in 1992, features this technique in a large-ensemble setting of the Latin text, an early Christian hymn of praise. Pärt scored the work for three choruses — separate women’s and men’s choruses and a mixed chorus — plus prepared piano, pre-recorded electronics, and strings. The electronics contribute the processed sound of a wind harp droning on the central pitches of D and A. Pärt’s biographer Paul Hillier quotes musicologist Edith Gerson-Kiwi on the effect of that sonic layer: “The [drone sometimes] ceases as an auditive factor, but not as a spiritual force. … We are witnessing here a process of sublimation where the audible fundamental drone turns into a ‘mental’ center of tonality.”
Te Deum builds lush, reverberant textures over that fixed drone, delineated by the 29 lines of text, each introduced in a plainchant style. The description of a “process of sublimation” is apt; this music has a way of transporting the listener away from earthly concerns, from the first bloom of harmony on the words “Te Deum” to the gentle lull of the closing “Sanctus.”