The Kennedy Center

Spiegel im Spiegel (1978)

About the Work

Arvo Pärt Composer: Arvo Pärt
© Richard Rodda

Arvo Pärt, born in Paide, Estonia on September 11, 1935, graduated from the Tallinn Conservatory in 1963 while working as a recording director in the music division of the Estonian Radio. A year before leaving the Conservatory, he won first prize in the All-Union Young Composers' Competition for a children's cantata and an oratorio. In 1980, he emigrated to Vienna, where he took Austrian citizenship; since 1982, he has made his home in West Berlin. Pärt's many distinctions include the Artistic Award of the Estonian Society in Stockholm, Scholarship Award of the Musagetis Society in Zurich, honorary membership of the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, two Grammy nominations, honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an honorary doctorate from Sydney University, the Russian Independent "Triumph Award," the Order of the Estonian State Second Class, a doctorate honoris causa from the University of Tartu, and the Herder Award conferred by the University of Vienna.

Pärt's earliest works show the influence of the Soviet music of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, but beginning in 1960 with Necrology for Orchestra, he adopted the serial principles of Schoenberg. This procedure quickly exhausted its interest for him, however, and, for a fruitful period in the mid-1960s during which he produced a cello concerto, the Second Symphony and the Collage on BACH for Orchestra, he explored the techniques of collage and quotation. Pärt was still dissatisfied, however, and he abandoned creative work for several years, during which time he devoted himself to the study of the music of such Medieval and Renaissance composers as Machaut, Ockeghem, Obrecht and Josquin. Guided by the spirit and method of those ancient masters, Pärt broke his compositional silence in 1976 with the small piano piece Für Alina , which utilizes quiet dynamics, rhythmic stasis and open-interval and triadic harmonies to create a thoughtful mood of mystical introspection reflecting the composer's personal piety. His subsequent works, all of which eschew electronic tone production in favor of traditional instruments and voices, have been written in this pristine, otherworldly style inspired by Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, and seek to unite ancient and modern ages in music that seems rapt out of time. Spiegel im Spiegel , composed in 1978, shortly before Pärt left Estonia, is an ethereal lullaby. It moves at an unvarying pace and is built from the simplest of musical materials: a continuous broken-chord pattern, subject to only the most subtle harmonic shifts, in the right hand of the piano; bell tones, deep in the bass and high in the treble, for the left hand; and long-held notes moving by fundamental intervals in the violin. There is not a single chromatic note in the entire work. The title of Spiegel im Spiegel ? " Mirror in the Mirror " -suggests the additive growth of its violin line, which moves progressively from three initial notes ? one above and one below the pitch A, the work's gravitational center - to ultimately encompass complete scale sequences, much as facing mirrors create a perpetually expanding visual image.