arvo pärt’s summa -- 4/15/22

Today's selection -- from Arvo Pärt by Paul Hillier. One of the most beautiful compositions of the twentieth century is the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Summa:              
"Originally composed for two solo voices (tenor and bass) and six instruments, Summa became better known first as an a cappella vocal work (both solo and choral) and more recently in various instrumental combinations, ranging from string quartet to string orchestra. Its quiet beauty seems straightforward enough, even if, while it is clear to the listener that the same basic musical material is being revolved through the text, the ear cannot readily detect any precise pattern either in the purely musical process or in the way the text is divided up among the two pairs of voices. But on closer inspec­tion, Summa reveals itself to be one of the most intricately satisfying of the shorter tintinnabuli works. Beneath its undemonstrative exterior lie several interwoven layers of skilfully proportioned activity deter­mining every note, but with such graceful subtlety that the impression is quite free.

"The long text (364 syllables) is divided up into a fixed syllabic pattern: 7/9/14/9/14/9/14, and so on, ending with a final group of 7. (A five-note 'Amen' is used to close the pattern.) The nine-syllable groups are set à 4, the 14-syllable groups alternately for the lower and upper pair of voices, in strict rotation. This disposition of the text by syllable count takes no notice of its phrase structure, and results in a seemingly fortuitous setting, in which phrases stop or begin in the middle of words in one pair of voices, whilst continuing in the other (an approach which also occurs in some medieval pieces). In the exact centre of the work, however, this results in a significant and expressive break after a unison cadence at the words 'sepultus est'.

"The M-voices form a pair of rising and falling scales, with one syllable allotted to each note of the scale; these scales move between a fourth and a sixth apart, though their parallel motion is somewhat disguised by the addition of passing tones, so that their motion might more aptly be described as 'curling' in either direction, rather than moving precisely by step. Both voices encompass ranges of a minor tenth, that of the bass being a fourth lower than that of the 'tenor'. The upper voice begins with a descending phrase for the opening: 'Credo in unum Deum' (seven syllables). This phrase is normally sung as a solo intonation, and its length will have helped determine the particular syllabic divisions used by Pärt. In the next bar (nine syl­lables) the upper voice turns round and begins to ascend, joined now by the lower voice moving at first in parallel sixths; they turn around at different points to make their descent. The intervallic relationship between the two M-voices gradually shifts from an emphasis upon sixths at the beginning, to predominantly fourths in the middle of the work, and then back to the more euphonious sixths again by the end. These opening phrases are shown in Ex. 19a.

"If the T-voices are examined closely, it will be apparent that their connection to the M-voice does not strictly fit the 'rules' outlined in Chapter 4. Not only do they move around apparently freely between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd (transposed 1st) positions; there are even instances of octaves, which would normally be avoided. Instead, Pärt appears to have designed the two T-voices from a longer perspective so that they create their own pattern, both separately and together. The overall contours of the two patterns (M and T) do correspond, but the note­-to-note logic of the T-voice is, exceptionally, self-contained.

"To see this more clearly, we must strip away the passing notes and rhythmic values, leaving just the bare bones of M- and T-voices. In Ex. 19b I have superimposed the T-voices on one stave, and likewise the M-voices (and in order to do so, the lower pair has been trans­posed up an octave). This reveals both the separate patterns and the way they interlock, M with M and T with T.

"The M-voice scales are varied in a sequential fashion: every two bars a new beginning is made with the scale, always starting with E, then jumping to progressively one pitch later in the scale and continu­ing from that point. The pitch or pitches omitted in this process are then added at the end of the phrase. In Ex. 19b these two points are marked by an 'x'.

"However, it is not quite so straightforward as that! Each M-voice pitch is sounded twice, once on the way up, once on the way down. Or we could say that the same sequence of notes (an octave scale) is repeated forwards and then backwards. Looking again at Ex. 19b we can observe that the opening scale from E down to F# is in effect repeated, starting on the sixth pitch of the second bar and working backwards to the same F#; but if we check the corresponding T­-pitches, we will find a different part of the pattern. In other words, one part of the larger pattern is slowly emerging at a different point in the same pattern; the music begins to suggest the familiar unfamiliarity of a short story by Borges about a mirror which appears to dissolve, but is in fact slowly reconstituting itself elsewhere. And the process is circular: only at the very end of the work do the final pieces of the mirror slip back into place as the pitches (and rhythms) of the opening line are repeated exactly. Were it not for the 'Amen', bringing both sets of voices to rest on an open fifth, E-B, the piece could go on sounding to eternity."



Paul Hillier


Arvo Pärt


Oxford University Press


Copyright Paul Hillier 1997


111 - 114
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