Arvo Pärt: Kanon Pokajanen

Arvo Pärt: Kanon Pokajanen

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Arvo Pärt (born in Paide, Estonia in 1935) is one of the most successful composers in the world, if success be judged by record sales.  He is also a profoundly spiritual man.  His membership of the Russian Orthodox Church, since the 1970s, has been a matter of biographical fact rather than a subject for media speculation; most of the latter has centred on a vague apprehension of “spirituality”, a “meditative quality” from which the composer himself has said he feels very distant.  In other words, his music, like all genuine Orthodox art, is incarnate.  It reaches us in our earthly condition but reminds us that our journey is only beginning.  That journey, towards theosis, or divinization, is achieved through repentance, the casting off of sin in anticipation of the blazing glory of love: the presence of God.

The Kanon Pokajanen, or Canon of Repentance, arose from a commission for a work to celebrate the 750thanniversary of the foundation of Cologne Cathedral.  Completed in 1997, it was first performed in the following year by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under the direction of Tõnu Kaljuste.  The Slavonic text of the Kanon is taken from the prayerbook of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Pärt has himself described the origin and process of composition of the work: “Many years ago, when I first became involved in the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church, I came across a text that made a profound impression on me although I cannot have understood it at the time. It was the Canon of Repentance. Since then I have often returned to these verses, slowly and arduously seeking to unfold their meaning. Two choral compositions (Nun eile ich…., 1990 and Memento, 1994) were the first attempts to approach the canon. I then decided to set it to music in its entirety – from beginning to end. This allowed me to stay with it, to devote myself to it; and, at the very least, its hold on me did not abate until I had finished the score. I had a similar experience while working on Passio. It took over two years to compose the Kanon Pokajanen, and the time “we spent together” was extremely enriching. That may explain why this music means so much to me.”

Orthodoxy speaks of the mind entering the heart – this is the condition for real prayer, according to such writers as Nikiphoros the Monk in the collection of spiritual texts known as the Philokalia – and this must at first sight be, at least partially, what is required for the composition of sacred music, as it is for the painting of an icon.  Unlike the icon painter, however, unless he is actually writing chant (in which case he is probably a monk), the modern Orthodox composer’s production is situated very largely outside the Church.  This is related to the problem of precisely what we mean by “Tradition” and how we implement it creatively; this has meant that modern-day Orthodox composers tend to feel that they are creating para-liturgically, on the edge of music actually used in liturgical celebration.

Pärt has never claimed to be a composer of liturgical music, even though many of his works are settings of liturgical texts and can be used in celebrations.  In the case of the Kanon Pokajanen, we are dealing with a composition that, by reason of its very scale, transcends the limits of a conventional liturgical setting of the text; nevertheless, the composer respects absolutely the structure of the great poem that is the canon, a hymnographical genre sung at the offices of Matins, Compline and elsewhere.  That structure is, in essence, a division into nine sections called odes, beginning with a verse called the heirmos (a paraphrase of one of the nine Biblical canticles) and followed by a series of troparia, or verse, with refrains (in this case “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me”; “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit” and “Now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”).  The last of these refrains is a theotokion, or stanza to the Mother of God (in Greek Theotokos).  To these, when a full canon is sung, there are added a sedalen (sitting hymn) between odes 3 and 4, and a kontakion and oikos between odes 6 and 7, and, here, a prayer after ode 9.  The second ode is not normally sung, except during Lent, on account of its highly penitential character.

The composer emphasizes these structural divisions by means of textural changes.  Essentially, this means that the heirmoi are characterized by writing for the full choir, while the less melodically elaborate troparia employ smaller groups of singers, the melody migrating through the different voices of the choir.  For the sections that fall outside the basic canon scheme, Pärt uses a clear melody with drone accompaniment (or ison, in Byzantine terminology), rather than the Russian-tinged full polyphonic writing of the heirmoi.

What is characteristic of the work as a whole, however, is the composer’s total absorption in the penitential words he is setting.  Indeed, one might consider the Kanon the ne plus ultra of a precise attention to text that characterizes his entire output; and it is worth recalling that Pärt has set a number of languages, including English, Estonian, German, Italian, Russian, Slavonic and Spanish.  In parallel with, and apparent contradiction to, this attention to detail is the astounding harmonic richness that arises from what is essentially a single, static modality, based on D.  Indeed, the Kanon may be considered on one level an anthology of the composer’s choral techniques as he has developed them over the years since his discovery of the “tintinnabuli” style in the late 1970s, and a demonstration of the extraordinary richness which has arisen from that apparently simple technique.  The work’s extraordinary variety of colour derives essentially from the subtle shadings, and also abrupt changes, of choral texture mentioned above, from dense chordal work covering the entire range of the choir to unadorned passages for one or two voices reminiscent of Russian Znamenny chant.

From penitence, then, arises a vision of the transcendent beauty of the Godhead; the soul’s yearning for the presence of God.  If such words seem strange in today’s secular society, how else to explain the remarkable effect of this music, containing simultaneously sobriety and exultation, on those who share none of the composer’s beliefs?  Certainly, this is music that speaks for itself, but it does so because of the composer’s absolute conviction of the truth of the words of the Canon of Repentance.

Embedded above is a beautiful live performance by the Aquarius Chamber Choir, preceded by a short Dutch-language introduction


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Fr. Ivan Moody

Ivan Moody is a composer, conductor, and Orthodox priest. He is a researcher at CESEM – Universidade Nova in Lisbon, Portugal, and was previously Professor of Church Music at the University of Eastern Finland. He is also Chairman of the International Society for Orthodox Church Music. Recent compositions include Simeron for vocal trio and string trio, commissioned by the Goeyvaerts Trio, Qohelet, for the Italian ensemble De Labyrintho, a trilogy on texts from Dante, and The Land that is Not, premiered by the BBC Singers in London in October 2014. He has published widely on early and contemporary music, and has recently published a book, Modernism and Orthodox Spirituality in Contemporary Music. (http://www.isocm.com/publications/publications/moody_music.html)