Arvo Pärt – Fratres


Fratres for Violin and Piano.

Arvo Pärt (1935-) is an Estonian composer who developed his minimalist style and compositional methods in isolation behind the Iron Curtain. His music incorporates elements of Gregorian chant and modes; religious ideas; and minimalist textures. When he began composing, he experimented with neo-classical techniques, following Prokofiev, Bartók and Shostakovich. Dissatisfied with this approach, he turned to 12-tone composition. At that time, atonal composition was officially discouraged by the Soviet Union, and Pärt’s music was banned.

Fratres for Cello and Piano

In the 1970’s, in search of inspiration, Pärt began to research the historical origins of Western music, looking at Gregorian chant, church modes, and early polyphony. The compositions that follow these investigations imagine a different path of musical development, almost an alternate-history version of Western music. Many of them are explicitly religious; today he composes mostly sacred choral music.

Fratres for Chamber Orchestra

Over the course of his career, Pärt has developed a proprietary compositional technique, called tintinnabuli (the name comes from the Latin tinnabulae: of bells [it’s also where we get the beautiful English word tintinnabulation]). This method, at its most basic, consists of two lines of music, one moving by step, the other playing the notes in a triad. It makes for simple, ethereal, and deeply moving music. A good example of this technique is Pärt’s 1976 piano work, “Für Alina:”

Für Alina

Fratres is either a collection of works, or a single work with many orchestrations. It is very simple music; it consists of a progression of chords that alternate with a percussive section. The changes and forward motion of the piece result from small changes in rhythm and dynamics. The first version, for string quartet, was composed in 1976. From 1976-1992, Pärt has made five other orchestrations: for strings and percussion; for solo violin and piano; for solo cello and piano*; for eight cellos; for violin, strings and percussion. Other arrangers have prepared versions for wind octet and percussion; guitar and violin; and chamber orchestra.
*This version was featured in the movie “There Will Be Blood.” This is for good reason. It’s my favorite.

Fratres for Violin, Strings and Percussion

All of these orchestrations provide different compositional challenges. For the orchestrations with solo instruments, because they cannot play block chords, they are replaced with light, very fast arpeggios. The orchestrations without percussion instruments have different solutions to the percussive sections that separate the chord progressions: in the string quartet they are played as strong pizzicato, in the versions for solo instrument and piano, the crashing piano provides the percussion. An arrangement for wind octet was prepared by B. Brinner; the octet is not nearly as homogeneous in sound as the string ensembles, requiring another kind of adjustment.

Fratres for Guitar and Violin. Part Two.

Fratres is deceptively simple. All of the musical ideas are laid out in the first thirty seconds of the recording of any one of the orchestrations, and yet in the six months or so since I first listened to it, I’ve found myself revisiting –and hearing new things– in the various recordings and arrangements. It seems like each one has its moment when the music becomes transcendental.

Fratres for Wind Octet

Wikipedia: Fratres; Arvo Pärt
Amazon: Fratres/Summa/Festiva Lente/Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten

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