Pärt's music shows an interesting mélange of influences. He has worked as a sound producer for Estonian radio and when young, played both oboe and percussion. He studied composition at Talinn Conservatory. He spent much of the 1970s studying Medieval and Renaissance music. He has a religious sensibility and is a convert to the Russian Orthodox Church. He is often called a "minimalist" though his is quite different from the minimalism of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. One of his influences is Gregorian chant. But one element that unites the various different streams of minimalism is the use of consonant harmony.
His earlier music shows the influence of composers like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Bartók, but from his Third Symphony (1971) on, his music goes back to earlier influences and takes on a mystic simplicity.
Here is a sample of his earlier style, the Symphony No. 1 from 1963. It does not sound terribly distinctive. Volleys of percussion, barking brass and lots of dissonance could be from various composers of the time. It does make you realize that continuous dissonance has a sameness to it.
Now, to show how dramatically his style changed, here is the first movement of his Symphony No. 3, dating from 1971:
Quite a transformation. There is a distinct Medieval influence (such as in the opening melody with its similarity to Gregorian chant). From a site devoted to Arvo Pärt comes this list of stylistic elements typical of his later music:
- Slow tempi
- Use of silence
- Long rhythmic values
- Use of church modes
- Little or no use of chromaticism
- Use of medieval rhythmic devices (hocket) and rhythmic modes
- Use of medieval tonal devices (drones, chant, organum)
- Frequent use of minor tonalities
- Controlled use of dissonance
- Tintinnabulation creates harmonic tension and release
- Homophonic and homorhythmic writing
- Textural contrasts
- Mirror form
- Form determined by text (in choral works)
- Text creates arsis and thesis of phrases
- Declamatory delivery of text
- Close proximity contrasted with open spacing between voices
- Use of short motives
- Stepwise melodic motion
- Decreased activity preceding a cadence
- Individual voices enter and exit independently of one another
- Exploitation of color and tessitura in each voice type
- Sustained sonorities
- Philosophy of extended time
- Static harmonic activity
- Repetitive patterns
One of his most well-known earlier pieces is Tabula Rasa (1977) for two solo violins, prepared piano and chamber orchestra:
As Richard Taruskin points out in the Oxford History of Western Music, Vol 5 (pp 400 et seq.), by this point Pärt has removed the archaisms from his style and developed a distinctive personal idiom that, while drawing on the past, is certainly not contained by it. He has developed a new kind of tonal theory, inspired by bell sounds, called "tintinnabulation" that Taruskin describes as a kind of "oblique organum". He uses this most typically in his vocal music. His setting of the St. John Passion (1982) contains many examples:
The performers in that clip are the Choir of the Warsaw School of Economics. Somehow I find it deeply encouraging that a school of economics even has a choir, let alone one that is capable enough to sing this music.
Arvo Pärt is an outstanding example of the compositional strategy that I have called "racinative" where you go back and rediscover certain roots of music in order to revitalize what you are doing. It is the opposite of and antidote to the progressive development of more and more complex techniques and music that was the strategy or ideology of modernism.