Sometimes it’s the simplest pleasures in life that make you smile. Sometimes it’s the strength of simplicity that is the most moving emotional experience. Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer who seems to have turned away from some of the complexity of the twentieth century musical heritage, and as early as the 1970’s, was working in a style that used the strength and power of simplicity. (He also sported a killer beard long before anyone ever heard of a “Duck Dynasty”). One of his most frequently performed works is the Cantus in Memoriam of Benjamin Britten, written in 1977 in elegy after Britten’s death. The piece is scored for only strings and bells, so a more sonorous and homogeneous texture could not be imagined.
The Cantus is deceptively simple. Pärt has created a prolation canon, which is actually one of the most complex contrapuntal constructions one could create. (Please forgive the alliteration.) A prolation, or mensuration canon, is one whereby the melody is accompanied by other versions of itself, played at different speeds. All of the melodic voices are different, some at half speed of the original, some twice the initial speed, and others at different fractions in relation to the primary melody. To create a composition like this is normally a puzzle as hard as solving a Rubik’s Cube. This is a technique that originated in the early Renaissance period of music history.
In my humble opinion, where Arvo Pärt beats the system of the prolation canon is by creating a melody (Cantus) that is made up of mainly a descending Aeolian mode. This is to say, he only used the white keys on the piano keyboard in a scale centering on the pitch “A”. These are the same pitches that are used in the A natural minor scale, but by thinking of it as a mode, we know we are working outside the major/minor harmonic system. By limiting himself to these seven pitches, with lots of pedal “A” in the bass, there is a limit to how harsh or dissonant the music can get. By working in a mainly descending fashion, the tensions he does create seem to naturally resolve. Pärt can layer his melody upon itself in whatever manner he chooses, and he knows it is going to work, and sound idiomatic in the aural world he has created.
The results are powerfully moving for the purposes of the elegy he was creating. The strings have a rich, warm tone that naturally blends. The melancholy tone of the Aeolian mode is pure, but sad, and fitting for the purposes of the Memoriam. Arvo Pärt builds a texture that models an outpouring of emotion, and descends with a sense of loss and emptiness. I honestly don’t know if Pärt knew Britten personally, or if he just knew his compositions, and felt the great loss that Britten’s passing was to the world of music.
One last detail to point out is a very subtle thing at the end of the piece. The entire texture has been in the somewhat “dark” minor character of the Aeolian mode, but the last sound is a bell. The overtones of the bell sound out a faint A Major chord, with a C# that is never overtly sounded in the piece. It is a very small detail, but it is like there is a tiny Picardy third hovering at the end of the elegy, giving the listener a tiny glimmer of light or hope. It’s like Arvo is saying “If there is a heaven, I hope old Benjamin has made it there”. The experience of listening to this piece just leaves me speechless, so I will let you play it for yourself and be done.