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    candles in a church

    Through the Prism of Eternity

    At Allhallowtide, Arvo Pärt’s music evokes the poignancy of our fragile lives intermingled with eternity.

    By Joy Marie Clarkson

    November 1, 2023

    The evening is cold and dark, a damp November wind whipping and slicing around the old stone walls of the church. The gratuitously long days of Scottish summer have made their exit, and though it is only early evening, the world has sunk into a deep azure blue like the ocean waves lapping against the castle at the end of the street. I burrow like a turtle into my fluffy scarf, and turn the iron handle on the door, which groans in indignation as it swings open to the chapel. From within, light, if not warmth, radiates from the tomblike darkness. A line of candles is lit, variously deformed by melting unevenly from the wisps of cold air sneaking between the stones. In the gloom, I see a crowd of bundled witnesses, booklets in hand. I find my seat, and after some shuffling, we begin:

    O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys, which thou hast prepared for them that unfeignedly love thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    Allhallowtide, the triad of days from the final days of October to the first of November draws back the veil of time and reminds us in needful ways how heavenly realities interpenetrate our everyday experience. They remind us that angels and saints and all the company of heaven are looking out for us. But they also remind us that other people die and we will too. In the old times, Allhallowtide began with a vigil mass for All Hallow’s Eve (which we know as Halloween), leading to All Saints’ Day, and culminating in All Souls’ Day. It is a time to remember those who have gone before us: the Saints whose godly lives give us courage and something to emulate, and the loved ones whose loss we still keenly feel and wish to honor. But the recognition of loss on All Souls’ Day is predicated upon accompaniment of All Saints. Time and eternity huddle together like parishioners on a windy day. We celebrate the “great crowd of witnesses” who cheer for us on the other side of the veil, even as we remember and grieve our experiences of separation from the beloved faithful ones who have died before us. The veil between time and eternity feels thin these days. We see our loss and ache through the prism of eternity, in which the dead and the living seem close and not far away.

    Arvo Pärt’s music uniquely evokes this plaintive consolation; the poignancy of our fragile lives elevated and intermingled with eternity. In his celebrated essay “Consolations,” Alex Ross tells the story of a man dying of terminal cancer. The man’s friend sends him a set of compact discs, containing Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa (1977), a small consolation in view of a slow, painful death. But the man listened to it almost constantly, finding comfort in the strange, contemplative compositions. Ross writes, “Several people have told me essentially this same story about the still, sad music of Pärt – how it became, for them or for others, a vehicle of solace.” For many listeners, the succor mediated through Pärt’s compositions carries with it an unquestionably spiritual dimension. Upon hearing Tabula Rasa for the first time in 1977, Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür proclaimed, “I was carried beyond … I had the feeling that eternity was touching me through this music.” And for some, it was not only the some-thing of heaven, but the some-one of a heavenly presence. At a hospice in Scotland, where Pärt’s music was found to be one of the most common choices for dying patients, one man’s mother found herself puzzled by his repeated requests for the “angel music,” only to discover it was Pärt’s Tabula Rasa.

    In each of these testimonials, Pärt’s music somehow makes death bearable by making eternity present. The “timeless” effect of Pärt’s music is often attributed to his distinctive compositional style of tintinnabuli, which pervades his oeuvre. Inspired by the resonances of bells (tintinnabulum means bell in Latin), tintinnabuli involves “two voices – one melodic and one triadic.” The melodic relationship between these “two voices” eschews the musical conventions of exposition, development, and recapitulation, instead relying on an expansive circularity, which Pärt’s biographer Peter Bouteneff describes as “a stream of water, often beautiful … but leading nowhere in particular.” This method is most famously at work in Pärt’s widely performed “Spiegel im Spiegel” (mirror in mirror), a ten-minute-long duet between a piano and a violin, wherein the piano plays rising triads while the violin plays scales which both rise and fall, gradually increasing in length. The effect of these two lines is a disruption of the listener’s ability to intuit whether the music is progressing or merely meandering in circles, thus musically evoking what the title implies: an infinity mirror. In his book The Extravagance of Music, David Brown observes that “with progression in the music reduced to a minimum a sense of time transcended is suggested even as, inevitably, time does in fact move on.” Pärt openly admits this is his intention, declaring in an interview, “that is my goal: time and timelessness are connected. This instant and eternity are struggling within us.” It is as though Pärt seeks to bring this struggle to the surface for the listener, effecting what Malcolm Guite beautifully describes as “timelessness resounding into time,” where the listener is not pulled out of time, but experiences eternity within it. Two voices, one song; this is our mortal life.

    candles in a church

    Candles at an All Saints’ Day service. Photograph by Charles Clegg.

    Time and eternity; these are the two voices that sing to me on All Saints’ Day. On this day we know ourselves to be mortals, living through the changeability and anxiety of life. And yet, for a moment, the veil is pulled back. We see, or better yet hear, the voice of All the Saints and even the “angel music” singing us onward and giving us courage. Martin Heidegger described death as the “ownmost possibility” but on All Saints’ Day we remember that we are accompanied. Surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses,” our own mortal lives are given a frame and a depth, and the reality of our own death becomes framed by the godly lives that have come before us. Like Pärt’s “angel music” our own experience of confusion and fear is acknowledged, and yet we are reminded we are not alone but accompanied, surrounded, lifted up. On All Saints’ Day we hear the tintinnabuli of mortal and eternal life.

    But All Souls’ Day follows All Saints’. On All Souls’ Day, we remember the people we have loved and lost in this life. I find it comforting to have a day to admit in silence that there is a hole in some part of my world. And like the echoey walls of the chapel on All Souls’ Day, Pärt’s compositions are also comfortable with silence. Pärt’s emphasis on silence first began in a compositional crisis, a dry spell in which he composed nothing for eight years. Far from causing him to fear or hate silence, this experience led Pärt to incorporate “intentional silence born of … spiritual discipline” into his artistic process and musical compositions. Pärt wistfully describes entering a metaphorical desert to find musical inspiration: “I sometimes wander into silence when I am searching for answers…. Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.” Pärt seems to transpose his own experiences of silence into music, attempting to offer solace to his listeners by leaving wide gaps of wordless tranquility. Released after his period of compositional quietude, “Für Alina” demonstrates Pärt’s integration of silence, the piece consisting of simple notes on a piano interrupted by languishing and pregnant pauses. Fittingly, the piece was originally written to comfort a friend of Pärt’s who was deeply missing her daughter, Alina.

    Pärt’s music makes death bearable by making eternity present.

    On this front, Pärt’s music has sometimes been accused of being almost childishly simple, stripped back to the point of discomfort. Peter Bouteneff writes, “It seems as though people almost feel compelled to ‘fill it [the silence] in.’ As if the music itself were not enough. Or perhaps the silence embedded in the music is too much for them to bear.” Pärt’s approach to silence is similar to that of Olivier Messiaen, a forerunner to the holy minimalism of Pärt, who wrote in the subtitle to one of his scores, “Every silence of the cradle reveals musics and colors that are the mysteries of Jesus Christ.” For Pärt, silence accomplishes a clearing away of auditory clutter so that the presence of God and the sweetness of eternity may be perceived and experienced. Through incorporating silence into his compositions, Pärt invites the listener to be open to the presence of God, to attend to eternal realities commingled with temporality. And the effect of these compositional techniques is more than merely theoretical. Bouteneff writes, “People in situations of pain, people on their journey toward death, often find a curiously empathetic quality in Pärt’s work: they feel the music is suffering with them.” The two voices are still, and in the tomb we see also a womb.

    The silence and space so essential to Pärt’s music may make some listeners feel uncomfortable, but it can also be experienced as an emptiness into which God might enter. I crave silence sometimes. A willingness to sit with the gaps in our hearts and our lives, whether they are people we have lost or prayers which we don’t think have been answered. All Souls’ leaves us this space. We enter into the dark chapel. We remember in our hearts the names of those who have gone before us. We light a candle for them. I light three candles. Three candles for three souls that I have loved and lost, whose memory sometimes arrives in my mind with a wave of sorrow and love. We find ourselves praying for them, if out of nothing more than a loving habit. Reflecting on his own experiences of Pärt’s music, Bouteneff writes that it says to him, “I know that there is brokenness and terrible suffering in the world. I hear you, and am with you in it. I also know that suffering is not the last word. The last word is light.” And in the flickering candles of All Souls’ this is what I see also: light, hope, comfort. In the space it gives, a desire and a hope grows in my chest, so that I can say truly: I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

    In September 2024 Plough will publish Between Two Sounds: Arvo Pärt’s Journey to His Musical Language, a graphic novel biography by Joonas Sildre.

    Contributed By JoyClarkson2 Joy Marie Clarkson

    Joy Marie Clarkson holds a PhD in theology from the Institute for Theology and the Arts at the University of Saint Andrews. She hosts Speaking with Joy, a popular podcast about art, theology, and culture, and writes books.

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