Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Antiphon and Magnificat (Dec. 23): O Emmanuel

December 23 is the last of the "Golden Nights" of Advent (they began December 17). Other blogs have been doing an excellent job of covering each of the "O-Antiphons" appointed for one of these nights -- see the posts at Stand to Reason and Fr. Dan Martin's Confessions of a Carioca, and see all of the antiphons and their texts in English and Latin at this link.

On Sunday we heard a magnificent Christmas choral concert featuring the twelve incredible voices of Chanticleer. It was one of the most beautiful concerts in memory -- their range and pure intonation enable one simply to close one's eyes in any space in which they perform, and be transported to a world of pure music.

One of the pieces they sang was the O-Antiphon for the first night of the octave, "O Sapientiae", in its (German) setting ("O Weisheit") by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Both the music and the performance were so incredibly beautiful that I went searching for the rest of the O-Antiphon settings which he composed. I found this equally beautiful setting of the last antiphon, "O Emmanuel", and though it is not sung by Chanticleer, I want to share it with you on this December 23.

(Due to copyright restrictions, the recording may be listened to only at this link; I am unable to embed it on this site. The text is sung in German: O Immanuel, unser König und Lehrer, du Hoffnung und Heiland der Völker. O komm, eile und schaffe uns Hilfe, du unser Herr und unser Gott. You may listen to a Latin plainchant rendition of the antiphon at this link.)

After you have closed your eyes and listened to Pärt's distinctive setting, let me share with you some information about the composer and his distinctive technique of composition (which he calls "tintinnabuli"), and how he came to develop it. The story is a Bible-true example of how God brings forth good out of evil.

Arvo Pärt was born September 11, 1935 in Paide, Estonia, and began his study of music at age seven. The Soviet occupation of Estonia, which began in 1944 and lasted for over fifty years until 1992, had a profound effect on his life and music. Under the Soviet regime, Pärt's contact with contemporary Western composers and their techniques was severely limited. Nevertheless, by listening to smuggled tapes and studying their associated scores, Pärt managed to learn about the twelve-tone music of Arnold Schönberg, and to experiment with it (and other aspects of serialism) in some early compositions. Dissatisfied with the limitations of those techniques, Pärt branched out into others, but ran afoul of the authorities. In 1968 the Soviet censors banned his Credo, a work scored for solo piano, mixed chorus and orchestra which made use of collage techniques. After this event, Pärt went into what became the first of several periods of study and contemplation, in which he wrote no music, but analyzed the scores of great music of the past. He looked closely at the works of the 14th-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut, as well as of the Franco-Flemish choral school of the 15th and 16th centuries, including Ockeghem, Obrecht and Josquin des Prez.

He could not stay away from composition, however; one colleague from school noted that "he just seemed to shake his sleeves and notes would fall out." With his studies of the great choral masters under his belt, he began to experiment in the early 1970s with the polyphonic style in orchestral works, but noted he had not reached "the end of my despair and search." More periods of self-imposed silence followed, during which he delved even deeper into his studies, searching back through medieval plainchant into the very beginnings of music. What emerged by 1976 was a unique transformation, according to his biographer Paul Hillier (p. 91):
. . . with Pärt, it became increasingly clear that a synthesis of these different styles was not acceptable -- not possible even. He desired a fully integrated means of musical expression that would come from within him, rather than be claimed from external sources. So he turned aside from composing (in the sense of producing new, finished pieces), in order to penetrate more deeply into the very nature of music, which has primordially been rooted in some kind of tonal or modal pitch centre. He sought to re-establish tonality as the common basis for musical expression, but without the functional stereotypes of the Classical and Romantic eras. This radical renewal of musical language has often been dismissed as a retreat into the past or as yet another twentieth-century example of recycling an earlier musical idiom. It is the contention of this book that such is not the case. Many composers in recent decades have felt a similar need for a redefined sense of tonality, though few have articulated a response as uniquely expressive or as self-defining as Pärt's.
Arvo Pärt had settled on a technique derived from the earliest forms of Gregorian chant and of the polyphony heard in the 12th and 13th centuries in the Cathedral of Nôtre Dame in Paris. He called it by the Latin term tintinnabuli, or "little bells", and described it as follows:
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. I work with very few elements - with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials - with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.
With tintinnabuli, Pärt divides his forces into essentially two main voices. The first holds steady to a fixed pitch, and may split into notes of a triad associated with that pitch. The second voice moves mostly stepwise away from, and then back towards, the fixed tone(s) of the first voice, creating now eerily beautiful dissonances, and now ethereal harmonies with it. The result can be spellbinding.

In the following video, you can watch a visual illustration of the technique of tintinnabuli at work, because the score scrolls along with the music as it is sung, and you can see which voices are holding constant pitches while other voices weave in and out of the static texture in small steps. This music sets the well-known text of the Magnificat, which is preceded and followed by a different O-Antiphon on each of the Golden Nights. Thus the entire work by Arvo Pärt consists of his setting of the seven O-Antiphons, and this beautiful Magnificat:

Like Arvo Pärt, I am engaging (but only for this Christmas week) in a self-imposed respite. I am leaving alone the latest developments in the legal scene involving the Church and its leaders, and am using the time to blog on other subjects about which I care deeply, including the story of the first Christmas and its related associations in music. I hope to re-engage the legal scene with renewed strength after the New Year. For the present, I hope you will find an experience both fresh and pure in celebrating with me the birth of our Lord and the magi's subsequent adoration of Him, reflected through the eternal beauties of music and the sacred word.


  1. Mr. Haley,

    Sorry, but I think Pärt simply does not speak to me. I am more attuned to the baroque, although I also find Gregorian chant absorbing.

    But then, you know what they always say, "de gustibus non est disputandum."

    Pax et bonum and a most blessed Christmas to you and yours,

    Keith Töpfer