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Work

Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt Composer

The Beatitudes, for chorus and organ   

Performances: 5
Tracks: 5
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Musicology:
  • The Beatitudes, for chorus and organ
    Year: 1990
    Genre: Other Choral
    Pr. Instrument: Chorus/Choir
Composed in 1990 for SATB choir or soloists with organ, Pärt's setting of the Beatitudes is one of only a handful of works (Litany and And One of the Pharisees also falling into that category) composed in English. Of course, the original language of any text set to music is always considered important, and subsequent translations of a given work presuppose a certain amount of semantic, declamatory, and melodic compromise. In the music of Pärt, however, the sonic characteristics of the individual words in original language, and not just the meaning or attitude of the text as a while, informs the note-to-note musical construction of the work. For this reason, Pärt's vocal works cannot be performed in translation; to do so would require a complete overhaul of the contrapuntal processes at work. Taken from Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount," as found in Matthew 5:1-12, the Beatitudes provide a fitting structure for Pärt's setting. Each verse states a godly quality and the blessing attached to it; all except the last verse begin with the word "blessed." This creates a series of pairs and poles: the meek shall inherit the earth; those that hunger shall be filled. Perhaps this succession relates directly to the process used to construct the corresponding music. This so-called "tintinnabula" process likewise involves the combination of poles and pairs. Melodic lines that move in scalar fashion, usually along a diatonic scale, are paired with "tintinnabula" voices, which are confined to tonic chord tones. Thus the tonic is always present, but there is a perpetual resistance to it; the causal relationships between consonances and dissonances are eliminated, as they cohabit the same tonal space. Pärt likens this combination to the ying and yang of sin and redemption, mortality and immortality, manhood and godhood. The musical gestures in this work are intimately tied to the tintinnabular process. Pärt observes the natural contour of the text phrases by aligning accented syllables with notes that step away from the current melodic home tone, first in one direction, then in the other. Thus, on the phrase "Blessed are the poor in spirit," the melodic line in the alto remains fixed on F except for an ascent to G on "BLES-sed" and a descent to E flat on "SPI-rit." Likewise the phrase "Blessed are the persecuted" is set with a dramatic leap to D on "per-," which then descends the three steps down to the home tone of A on "-secuted." Still, features in the landscape as prominent as these are poignantly rare: for the most part, the economy of the English language translates into relative melodic restraint. The predominance of short words of one or two syllables turns into melodic contours that never stray too far from home. Pärt makes the landscape more interesting by setting his tintinnabular processes in motion within an unusually chromatic harmonic framework. The harmonic structure id built upon a series of pedal tones in the organ that chromatically ascend a perfect fifth, from a low D flat (nearly two octaves below middle C) to G sharp. The chords built above this ascending line proceed using common tones (i.e., the top voice in an F-A-C triad moves upwards by step to become F-A-D-or spelled in root position, a D minor chord). As the choir finishes the last verse (which, uniquely, begins with "rejoice" rather than "blessed") and the emphatic "amen" that follows, the organ takes over with a long series of liquid arpeggios that follow a descending pedal line, eventually arriving full-circle at the original tonal center.



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