Music for Catholics: Arvo Pärt’s “Musica Selecta.”

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“I could compare my music to white light which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.”

-Arvo Pärt

Every person intent on a joyous eternity beyond time and space is bound by the question of what to do – and how well to occupy – the temporal portion of their journey. Consequently, it does not take a great deal of introspection to conclude that one should avoid wasting precious time. If one follows this epiphany a bit further down the road, time-centered art forms — as music is — must be reconsidered, encountered. While all art forms have potential value, those which demand of our time make the greatest mortal demand, and should be approached with the care given to any temporal investment. After all, a loss in financial investments may be later regained, but no temporal loss or waste of time can ever be recovered. Seen in this light the pursuit of music takes on a new and urgent significance, while mere entertainment or “art for art’s sake” no longer become tenable options. When one factors in the moral, spiritual, and aesthetic questions related to the use of music (as I’ve written about before), a Catholic may find himself much more compelled to spend musical time wisely. Yet despite the most prolific and instantaneous availability of high-quality music in human history, it can still seem daunting to find a starting place for a new journey in Christian listening. Where does one turn?

While the great old masters – the almost cliché litany of names like Mozart, Bach, Beethoven – have contributed towering works of eternal value to the human story, many well-intentioned listeners find it difficult to transition from the digitally-polished aural fast food of popular music to the purely acoustic and often stylistically unfamiliar musings of more “ancient” compositions. While it is a journey worth making – indeed this author deems it a non-negotiable pursuit for serious Catholics who wish to keep music as a part of their new life in the spirit – a bridge of some sort to these great artists can be helpful in developing an appreciation for what they have to offer.

The 20th century composer Igor Stravinsky takes a different tack from the chronological collegiate “Music Appreciation 101: From Medieval to Modern” journey, instead proposing that in order to understand the music of previous times, one must first understand the music of one’s own time. Even though I find this reasoning technically flawed for a number of reasons (not the least being the aesthetic burden of history, where past necessarily informs the present by creating context), the sentiment is sound: Stravinsky might as well be saying “start with the great works of your own time, and work your way back.” At the very least, it’s an approach worth trying.

Perhaps more than any other living musician in the world, the much-beloved composer Arvo Pärt provides a luminous and spiritually charged modern music which serves as a searing antidote to the ills of the present while also providing a gentle guide by which to experience the past. Born in 1935, Pärt converted to Orthodox Christianity and began to write sacred works in the 1970s. He was forced to leave his home country of Estonia – at that time still a part of the Soviet Union – and embark on an unknown road which would by God’s grace blossom into some of the most beloved new music in the world. Also a perennial favorite of 1p5 contributor Peter Kwasniewski, Pärt writes deeply contemplative works built upon the aesthetic shoulders of musical giants, resulting in a music equally at home in concerts of difficult modernist music and ancient renaissance polyphony alike. It is a music inspired by chant, a sounding which emerges carefully from silence and leads the listener back to a stillness pregnant with contemplative meaning. For Christian believers around the world, there may be no better musical contemplative tool which has come out of our own time.

Another difficulty in getting to know a composer’s work is the question of “where to start” – what to choose, and which pieces and recordings are essential to understanding the artist’s message and career trajectory. Where Arvo Pärt is concerned, this problem has been solved for new listeners by ECM’s release of Arvo Pärt: Musica Selecta (MP3; CD). ECM – whose legendary producer Manfred Eicher began his much vaunted “New Series” in order to capture the music of Pärt –  holds the twin honors of being Pärt’s greatest recording collaborator along with perhaps being the most interesting record label in the world. At the very least, their broad and luminous selections are a generally introspective and aesthetically broad salvo at a recording industry dominated by short loves expressed in spastic tempos. At the most, they present the listener with a real window onto the world of music worth listening to. For experienced listeners, ECM and Pärt need no introduction; for newbies to this wonderful aesthetic journey, their indispensability cannot be stressed enough.

Musica Selecta is Manfred Eicher’s curated journey into complete and excerpted works spanning Pärt’s life and career. From the otherworldly early Tintinabulli work Fṻr Alina for solo piano to excerpts of the stunning Kanon Pokajanen for unaccompanied choir, the 2 CD set is a musical goldmine heavily laden with spiritual potential. Eicher’s selections set the works facing each-other, out of their original context, mirroring and creating new aesthetic relationships. New listeners can reference the original recordings of the works in the liner notes, while current Pärt fans will likely discover a piece they had not yet considered. The retrospective journey concludes with the full versions of Pärt’s stunning Stabat Mater and Da Pacem Domine, choral works which have become the love and desire of many a modern choral director.

For the past twenty years, Christian composers seeking an antidote to the strange dictates of academic modernism have turned to the life and work of Arvo Pärt for authentic inspiration, and have subsequently discovered a composer who is also a quiet and humble man of deep mystical faith. When one follows the career of Pärt, encounters those who have worked with him, or meets the man himself, one is comforted by the magnanimity and humility of the world’s most performed classical composer.

From left to right: Dr. Mark Nowakowski, Arvo Pärt, Nora Pärt, Maggie Nowakowski.

From left to right: Dr. Mark Nowakowski, Arvo Pärt, Nora Pärt, Maggie Nowakowski.

One is struck by the deep love between his Pärt and his wife, Nora, and how she has been a bulwark in the success of his musical career. Finally one is cheered to encounter the spiritual authenticity so lacking in the turbulent world of the arts. Subsequently if Pärt apologies are laced with as much love as anguish, respect and impatience, it is because their authors are so desperate to share this deeply valuable work – this antidote to the frenetic pace of our times – with their readers. This is music worth listening to. This is music for the perennial Advent. This is music for Catholics.

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