The Beatitudes       Arvo Pärt


Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, 

and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: 

for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. Amen.

St Matthew, Ch 5, vv 3-12

This highly individual piece, written in 1990, has a fascinating structure. Each half-verse of scripture is set as an individual statement, sung homophonically by the choir in a declamatory way, and separated from the text either side by a series of general pauses. The music gradually rises in pitch as the text progresses, beginning in F minor and rising through the distance of a tritone to C# minor for the final choral statement, with each new statement shifting to a marginally higher pitch. Every third statement by the choir is underpinned by a single sustained bass note, played on the organ pedals. Starting on C#, each new pedal note is a semitone higher than the one it replaces. As well as gradually rising in pitch, as the text progresses the music also rises in volume. After the final choral statement, there is an extended organ passage, based on arpeggios, which gradually subsides in both pitch and volume, retreating back over the distance of a tritone, starting from C# minor where the choir left off, and finally settling in the original key of F minor. When looked at as a whole, therefore, tonally the piece is constructed as a huge arch, with the choral parts rising from the ground (F minor) to the apex (C# minor), and the organ taking the music from this pinnacle back down to the ground. Throughout, the alto and bass parts are connected to each other by the presence of a unison pitch within each statement, which rises in whole tone increments from F to C# as the text progresses. Within each phrase, the alto and bass parts move up and down either side of this unison in strict inversion, the basses falling by the same interval that the altos rise and vice-versa. The soprano and tenor parts are also inextricably linked to each other, in that the two parts alternate between the same two or three notes within each statement, mostly a fifth or sixth apart, gradually rising in pitch, but ‘see-sawing’ across the intervals, also in inversion to each other. The choice of a tritone as the interval of harmonic displacement is very interesting, and somewhat inexplicable given the nature of the text. The tritone, literally three tones, produces the interval of an augmented fourth, or diminished fifth and is the exact division of the octave. Known as ‘diabolo in musica’ (the devil in music) historically, from the Middle Ages onwards, composers from numerous nationalities have associated this interval with fear, intimidation, hostility and all things unpleasant. It appears both harmonically and melodically in countless operas, musicals, ballets, oratorios, cantatas, passions etc. across the centuries and as a kind of leitmotiv to represent these emotions.) The tritone’s appearance so prominently in the structure of this piece can be viewed as a surprise. Using text from the King James Bible, The Beatitudes was Pärt’s first attempt to set words to music in English.

Arvo Pärt was born in Järva County, Estonia. At the time of his birth Estonia was an independent Baltic state; in 1940, however, it was occupied by the Soviet Union, and there began a political domination which was to last for 51 years (apart from a brief period of occupation by the Nazis) – a domination which impacted greatly on Pärt’s development. His early musical training was severely limited and his compositions were subject to rigorous censorship by the political authorities. An inability to encounter external influence from other composers was a significant drawback; other than a handful of illegally obtained scores and tapes there was very little contemporary music to access. Pärt’s musical training consisted of study at the Tallinn Conservatory, early employment as a sound recording engineer, and training as an oboist and side-drummer whilst carrying out the obligatory national service. Many of Pärt’s early compositions are radical experiments with prevailing European musical styles of the mid-twentieth century. There are compositions which demonstrate the neo-classical techniques found in the works of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, and there are flirtations with the serialistic, or dodecaphonic (twelve-note), techniques of Schoenberg and his pupils Webern and Berg. There is music that demonstrates intense Expressionism and an almost aggressive attitude to dissonance. Growing up in communist Estonia, Pärt found himself at odds with the political regime on every aesthetic and spiritual level. This struggle was to last until he finally secured permission to emigrate, with his wife and two sons, in 1980, settling firstly in Vienna and later in Berlin, where he currently lives. Many of his early compositions were censored by the authorities. This led him to a period of contemplative silence during which time he wrote nothing, but studied Gregorian chant, early choral music and the development of polyphony into western music. He also made a deep and personal exploration of his own Russian Orthodox faith. This self-imposed creative exile lasted for eight years, and was broken by the composition of his third symphony. The highly minimalistic musical style which emerged was radically different from that of previous works. In this second period of composition Pärt also found himself fascinated by sacred texts, and as well as The Beatitudes, larger scale works from this time include a Te Deum, a Magnificat, and a St John Passion. Pärt was a great admirer of the music of Benjamin Britten, and three times during the 1960s and 1970s made arrangements to travel to the UK to meet Britten. On each occasion the Soviet authorities refused Pärt permission to travel.