"The human voice is the most perfect instrument of all."
Arvo Pärt

De Profundis
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, long a cult favorite, is rapidly finding mainstream popularity. It's easy to hear why. Deeply spiritual, the simple triads and static minimalism of his choral music throw a life preserver to souls drowning amid the frantic pace and commercialism of modern life. Anyone emotionally moved by those chart-topping monks singing Gregorian chants or by Henryk Gorecki's best-selling "Third Symphony" should sample this new survey of Pärt's meticulously crafted sacred works. The sonics and performances are spectacular. If I find the music's repetitiveness and mystic overtones less passionate and comforting than simply tedious, well, everybody has the right to choose their own savior.
By Mark Stryker

Listening to Arvo Pärt is like being in the presence of God. Majestic, emotional, powerful, awe inspiring. Words fail me when I try to explain to people what Pärt means to me personally. This is music of the highest order. Powerful, no other word will do. This is a fairly new release for Pärt and all I can say is that Manfred Eicher over at ECM must have spat blood when he saw this released on another label besides ECM. Why it wasn't released on ECM I don't know but what you get is Paul Hillier and his ensemble The Theatre Of Voices, as well Christopher Bowers- Broadbent on organ and Dan Kennedy on percussion. Kennedy I must admit to not consciously being aware of, but for the rest, well just check out all the other releases on ECM. It will blow you away. Start with Arbos, then Tabula Rasa, then Litany, follow it with the brilliant Miserere. There is a certain luminous spiritual tonality about these works. Stillness is an artform in itself.

But I digress, we are reviewing De Profundis after all. Apologies.

With Pärt, you need to have patience. If you like your classical music to be full of drama, well this is not going to be for you. Pärt's works are very austere sounding, would more than likely appeal to the minimalists . It's almost a respect for silence, and a healthy one at that.Spiritual minimalism sums it up nicely.

On this release there are quite a few pieces that have not been featured before. Cantate Domino was written in 1977, plus Psalm 95 composed in 1990. The opening piece is De Profundis and is in itself a very rich and rewarding composition in the way the organ and voices and Dan Kennedy's percussion interact. Magnificat is intensely serene in feel and with a lot of Pärt's work will very much put the listener into a trance like condition.

If you have not experienced Pärt's work, you won't go wrong here. Be aware it is very infectious though and you may have the urge to seek out other titles, in which case check out the ECM recordings. This really is something else. Harold Budd once told me that for him this was "Mickey Mouse mysticism" and I should listen to Webern and Ives to really be moved. Well, horses for courses I guess. Whether it is mickey mouse mysticism, I don't know. Personally it moves me to hear this sort of thing and that can't be a bad thing in the long run. This is music that lingers in your memory for a long time. All I need to do now is wait for my copy of Arvo Pärt to come, a book written by Paul Hillier on the man himself. i believe it has been released in America but has yet to hit our shores. Definitely an interesting composer.

16 June 1997
"Now when I say silence I mean silence."

Kanon Pokajanen

World premiere recordings of music for choir by Arvo Pärt, made in Tallinn with the Pärticipation of the composer. "Music," as writer Uwe Schweikert notes, "full of austere, painful beauty. Pärticularly impressive is the subtle, often breathtaking transition from full to divided choral music, from the sound of high women's to deep men's voices, which often provide the music with a sonorous bourdon-like foundation. The amplitude of the composition which in the final prayer gradually rises above the calm only to disappear in silence, will be remembered by everyone who hears Kanon pokajanen as sung by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir."

Arvo Pärt has been fascinated by the canon of repentance of the Russian Orthodox Church since first becoming involved in the Church's traditions many years ago, and has returned often to the texts. Authorship of the canon is credited to St Andrew of Crete (c 660 - 740 AD). "It is a song of change and transformation. In the symbolism of the church, it invokes the border between day and night, Old and New Testament, old Adam and new Adam (Christ), prophecy and fulfilment, the here and the hereafter. Applied to a person, it recalls the border between human and divine, weakness and strength, suffering and salvation. In the canon of repentance, the text is devoted to the theme of personal transformation. Repentance appears as a necessary threshold, as a kind of purification on the way to salvation in paradise. The difficulty of following the way is shown by the inner tension between the respective eirmos and the following stanzas, that is, between the praise of the Lord and the lamentation of one's own weakness." [from booklet notes by Marina Bobrik-Frmke].

Previous Pärt choral compositions Nun eile (1990) and Memento (1994) were earlier attempts to approach the canon. Finally, in response to a commission to write music for the 750th anniversary of Cologne Cathedral, the composer determined to set it in its entirety. "This allowed me to stay with it, to devote myself to it...its hold on me did not abate until I had finished the score....It took over two years to compose the Kanon pokajanen ...That may explain why this music means so much to me. In this composition, as in many of my vocal works, I tried to use language as a point of dePärture. I wanted the word to be able to find its own sound, to draw its own melodic line. Somewhat to my surprise, the resulting music is entirely immersed in the Pärticular character of Church Slavonic, a language used exclusively in ecclesiastical texts." In his liner notes - this is, incidentally, the first occasion on which the composer has provided a programme text for one of his albums - Pärt goes on to say that work with the Kanon demonstrated to him the extent to which the language of a given vocal work can shape its form. "The same musical structure, the same treatment of the word, leads to different results depending on the choice of language, as seen on comparing Litany (English) with Kanon pokajanen (Church Slavonic). I used identical, strictly defined rules of composition and yet the outcome is very different in each case."

Kaljuste and his choir have a long history together. In 1971, at the age of 18, Tnu Kaljuste became conductor of the chamber choir Ellerhein, a vocal ensemble founded by his father. Ten years later, the Ellerhein choir became the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. The EPCC's repertoire includes Gregorian chants, music of the baroque era and 20th century works, emphasizing Estonian composers - Tormis, Tr, and above all, Pärt, of whose vocal music they are the foremost interpreters

The premiere performance of Kanon pokajanen takes place at Cologne Cathedral on March 17th 1998.
© Mediapolis

A new one by the great Estonian. This is his third collaboration with Tonu Kaljuste and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, previously heard on Te Deum and Litany. Said to have taken over two years to compose, this again sees Pärt employing his amazing use of silence and introspection, reverence and respect for the church, to create what can only be described as a masterpiece. Written for the 750th anniversary of Cologne cathedral (my old home town), Kanon Pokajanen or The Canon Of Repentance is based on Russian Orthodox text, but comes across as anything but 'heavy'. In fact if Pärt's world is one of darkness and light, this piece is definitely one that is rapidly moving toward the light and some sense of spiritual revelation. Pärt has been quoted in the past as saying that for him the words are far more important than the music, as such on this release the words very much become the music, as the voices soar toward heaven chanting " Have mercy on me, oh God, have mercy on me." This is a morning prayer which if truth be known is a humbling experience. If you are familiar with Pärt's work then add this to your collection; if you are not familiar with him do yourself a favour and explore his unique world of sacred chant and deep emotions. Truly unique.

Kanon Pokajanen comes to the Russians

Today, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, under the direction of Tnu Kaljuste will perform Arvo Pärt's choral work Kanon Pokajanen in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

The concert is organized by the Triumf fund for its annual Christmas concert series. The Triumf committee consists of many well known Russian cultural figures, who annually decide the fund's awards. Arvo Pärt was one of the award winners for 1997. The fund is supported monetarily by the Logovaz Company, owned by one of the most successful Russian businessmen, Boriss Berezov.

Kanon Pokajanen, which was premiered last year in Cologne Cathedral, takes its text from the canon of repentance, which first appears in early Church Slavonic texts. In the beginning, the repentance songs were performed during the time of fasting prior to Easter, in monasteries during the early morning hours and in parish churches during the preceding evening service. During the 16th Century the songs even began appearing in folk music.

Pärt has written that the text of the canon of repentance left an indelible impression on him, even at the time he first read it, many years ago. Later, he decided to set the text to music, using the language as his point of dePärture. "I wanted the work to find its own sound, to draw its own melodic line. Somewhat to my surprise, the resulting music is entirely immersed in the Pärticular character of Church Slavonic, a language used exclusively in ecclesiastical texts," said Pärt. The results demonstrated to the composer that the work's character and structure are determined to a large extent by the text and its laws. The language itself creates the music.

The press secretary at the Estonian Embassy in Moscow states that Moscow music critics are very aware of Kanon and are eagerly awaiting its performance. The Moscow Times, largest English language newspaper in Moscow, is publicizing the concert as "Recommended".

All of the European Union member/candidate nation ambassadors and a great number of the Russian cultural community have been invited to a reception after the concert which has been organized by the Estonian Embassy.


A good portion of Pärt's music is sacred, possessing a fulfilling ethereal quality. He composed a total of four organ pieces, and compared to his repertory of choral and vocal sacred music, this is a very small output. It is good to know these pieces, though, especially in the light of his longer works such as Passio and Tabula Rasa.

Annum per annum literally means year by year, and in this work there is a reflection of the idea that year m and year out the ancient rites of the church are celebrated in the same places. One such place is the Cathedral of Speyer in Germany, where, for its 900th anniversary in 1980, this work was first heard.

The introduction and coda mirror each other as frames for the five-movement interior of the work. The introduction begins with a repeating, iambic galloping figure, an open fifth in several octaves, very loud, which undergoes a strange diminuendo caused by turning the organ off or by pushing in stops gradually so that the wind dies away unevenly in different pipes. The coda uses a D Major chord as opposed to the open fifths between D and A in the introduction. In the coda, Pärt uses the same rhythm from the introduction, but gradually crescendos the sound from pp to fff

The five interior movements represent the sections of the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei). All of the movements are based on the same pedal and left hand, with variations in the right hand, in which the complexity increases up to the Credo and decreases to the Agnus Dei. Also, the mode shifts to the major in the middle of the Credo.

This piece is symmetrical in its mirror image, in going from major to minor, and the use rhythmic gesture throughout. Annum per annum Is simple, yet it explores with light the depths of a millennium of rite and tradition and its human consequence.
by Trey Clegg


This piece was inspired by a poem in the Livre des Questions by Edmond Jabes in which the moments of splendor and tribulation found in the spiritual path are compared to the swells and troughs of the ocean waves.

It verges on a literal interpretation of the poem. There are three different voices, each following the same contours of rising and falling phrases, but each at its own speed. The top voice is written in faster eighth notes, the middle voice in quarter notes, and the lowest voice (the pedal) slowly in half notes.

Pärt employs tintinnabuli style here with the triadic formulations and the sense of constant movement and simultaneous stasis.
by Trey Clegg
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