The Kennedy Center

Seven Antiphons

About the Work

Arvo Pärt Composer: Arvo Pärt
© James Potter

Contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has become widely celebrated for his choral music, at once spare and richly textured. Its twin focus on the sonority of the triad and the use of silence finds its most perfect outlet in texts for the season of Advent. The Seven Antiphons comprise a setting of what are often referred to as the 'Great "O" Antiphons'. Each begins 'O...' and heralds a particular virtue of Christ as prophesied by Isaiah. In the Catholic tradition, these are allotted to be sung either side of the Magnificat at Vespers on the last seven days of Advent.

Pärt treats each antiphon as a sort of choral miniature, allowing each its particular character. O Weisheit invokes 'the order of all things' in generous, spacious major chords. O Adonai uses the lower voices only, treating them almost as drones. Voices emerge out of this dark texture to speak of the mystery of the burning bush. O Spross acts as a counterpart, using only the upper voices. Its final prayer is that Christ 'delay no longer'...and so it proves, as immediately the central antiphon, O Schlüssel Davids, arrives in a blaze of A minor. It is followed by O Morgenstern, whose bitonality - two of the voices arpeggiate in E major, while the other two move melodically in E minor - creates a sense of uncertainty. O König aller Völker builds urgency, as the monotone recitation in the alto part grows ever more insistent. O Immanuel begins quietly, with the upper part climbing an A major chord with each new phrase. The other parts spiral up slowly through the circle of fifths, syncopated against the soprano, growing in intensity, until finally all come into alignment in a spacious A major which brings us full circle with the beginning of O Weisheit