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Brown paint strokes

By the Rivers of Babylon

A Lamentation for Refugees

Colin Fields

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Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s music, austere and devotional, is a demonstration of deep personal faith: “Religion guides all the processes in our lives, without us even knowing it,” he has said. “It is true that religion has a very important role in my composition, but how it really works, I am not able to describe.”

Pärt, who recently celebrated his eightieth birthday, began his musical experimentation as a child, working around the limitations of his family’s piano – only the notes at the top and bottom of the keyboard could be played. His early compositions were experiments in avant-garde forms such as serialism; Pärt’s refusal to follow Soviet musical conventions put him in in conflict with Estonia’s communist regime from the beginning of his career. The aggressive dissonance of his orchestral work Nekrolog earned him a personal denunciation from Tikhon Khrennikov, head of the infamous Union of Soviet Composers (the organization responsible for regulating artistic expression to bring it into line with Soviet ideology). But that was nothing to the uproar that followed the first performance of his openly religious Credo in 1968.

Love destroyed the hate. Not destroyed: the hate collapsed itself when it met the love.

Credo begins in dissonance, which is contrasted with, and finally overcome by, musical quotations from a Bach prelude. As Pärt explains it, “It was my deep conviction that the words of Christ — ‘You have heard an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, Do not resist evil, go with love to your enemies’ — this was a theological musical form. Love destroyed the hate. Not destroyed: the hate collapsed itself when it met the love. A convulsion. So it is in Credo.”

The political furor that followed cost several people in the Estonian Philharmonic organization their jobs. Credo was banned in the Soviet Union, and official commissions for Pärt’s music dried up. Pärt was also in a creative crisis because Credo had shown him the limits of atonality; as he put it later, “I wanted to put together the two worlds of love and hate. I knew what kind of music I would write for hate, and I did it. But for love, I was not able to do it.” That was why he had to quote Bach. “You can kill people with sound. And if you can kill, then maybe there is also the sound that is opposite of killing. And the distance between these two points is very big. And you are free –you can choose. In art everything is possible, but everything is not necessary.”

Pärt stopped composing for several years. This was a time of intensive study and reflection; Pärt immersed himself in the study of the spiritual fathers of Christianity and of early music, particularly plainchant. The result was a deepening of faith and the development of a new compositional system, tintinabulli (from the Latin for “bells”), that is inspired by Gregorian chant and is built around two melodic lines. As he explained it, “One line is who we are, and the other line is who is holding and takes care of us. Sometimes I say — it is not a joke, but also it is as a joke taken — that the melodic line is our reality, our sins. But the other line is forgiving the sins.”

This technique is used in the 1976 composition “An den Wassern zu Babel saßen wir und weinten,” a meditation on the opening lines of Psalm 137 which laments the destruction of Jerusalem. Let it be a lament and prayer for the suffering of today’s refugees.

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!

https://youtu.be/BPwMlgvNQ_E

Detail from Eduard Bendemann's painting, Grieving Jews in Exile, showing a man with shackles on his hands holding a harp, surrounded by his wife and children. Eduard Bendemann, Grieving Jews in Exile (detail)
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Contributed By Colin Fields

Colin Fields writes Plough Music Series, an occasional column highlighting music worth pausing to listen to.

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