Arvo Part pronounced "pairt" was born in Estonia in Although at that time Estonia was a nascent independent republic, the Soviet Union took control of it in , and stayed except for a brief period under the Nazis, for the next 54 years. While studying composition at the Tallinn Conservatory it was said of him that: "he just seemed to shake his sleeves and notes would fall out". However it is clear that Arvo Part experienced a deep crisis. His response to this impasse was to immerse himself in early music, to go in effect back to the very roots of western music.
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The surface features of the work paint an almost macabre scene. A chime for dead tolls grimly, while the string lines consist of perpetually descending minor scales over elongated pedal tones. The overall shape seems to follow the procession to the cemetery and the lifeless body into the grave.
However, a closer look at the processes at work in the Cantus, and a bit of insight into the philosophies behind those processes, reveal much deeper layers of spiritual meaning. M-lines are melodic lines that proceed in scalar or stepwise motion, usually within a diatonic scale and usually according to some kind of patterning system. T-lines, or tintinnabular lines, emphasize the sonority of the tonal center by confining themselves to chord tones. In the Cantus, the first and second violins, cellos, and basses are all employed divisi, with each section accommodating both a T- and an M-line.
To these four pairs is added a single melodic line in the viola, the only one without a corresponding tintinnabular voice. This texture is maintained until the last section of the work, at which point the melodic voices gradually conform to the predominating chord tones. Another process is also at work in the Cantus. The most prominent melodic contour is a simple descending A minor scale; this descending line, however, appears concurrently in various octaves and in various rhythmic values.
The aural result is that each of the melodic voices in the five instrumental groups plays the line at a different but proportional rate of speed, so that the first violins are 16 times as fast as the basses. Even deeper meanings can be found in the use of tintinnabular technique. The melodic voice can be read to correspond with the mortal, the tintinnabular voice with the eternal -- a dichotomy of body and spirit.
Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten by Arvo Part
Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, for string orchestra & bell