Composer Arvo Pärt turns 81
Born in Paide just a few years before the Estonian republic was occupied by the Soviet Union, Pärt's life has taken him from the USSR to Western Europe and back again to independent Estonia. His work's popularity with an extraordinarily broad audience has made him the most performed living classical composer in the world.
Arvo Pärt was born on Sept. 11, 1935, in the central Estonian town of Paide. He was raised in Rakvere by his mother and stepfather.
Pärt’s musical education started when he was seven years old, and he composed his first pieces at 14. In 1954 he entered Tallinn’s State Conservatory (today the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre), where he also studied composition under Heino Eller and Veljo Tormis.
Between 1958 to 1967 he worked as a sound producer with Eesti Raadio (today Estonian Public Broadcasting/ERR).
Pärt’s influences and compositional style diverged from the established approaches in the USSR fairly early on. Heavily influenced by religious music, his work stood out and got him the disapproval of the Soviet artists’ unions and authorities in 1960.
That the workings of the Soviet system were often contradictory is expressed very nicely in the fact that just nine months earlier, Pärt had won first place in a nationwide competition of the Soviet Union’s Society of Composers, where his work was given preference over that of 1,200 aspiring artists.
In the early 1960s Pärt studied the collage composition technique at the Moscow Conservatory, which he applied for works like “Credo” (1968). Towards the end of that decade, the composer entered a phase where, with the exception of a single symphony, he wouldn’t write until his return in 1976.
During this period, Pärt entered the Russian-Orthodox church and continued his studies of religious music, especially Gregorian compositions, the Notre Dame school, and the composers of the Renaissance.
Pärt returned in 1976, when the performance in Tallinn of “Für Alina” along with six other works introduced his since famous signature tintinnabuli composition style.
After continued disagreements and problems with the Soviet authorities, Pärt and his family emigrated to Vienna in 1980, from where they continued to Berlin in 1981. Pärt only returned to Estonia in 2005, and has since divided his time between Berlin and Tallinn.
His work has become popular with an exceptionally large audience for a classical composer. Today, Pärt is the most performed living composer of classical music.
Familiar works by Pärt are Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten for string orchestra and bell (1977), the string quintet Fratres I (1977, revised 1983) and later versions, Spiegel im Spiegel (1978), Pärt’s St John Passion (1982) and Te Deum, as well as more recent compositions like Da Pacem Domine (2004-09) and Swansong (2014).