Passio Program Notes

Program notes for Toronto Mendelssohn Choir concert of Arvo Pärt’s Passio on March 10 and 11, 2015 at Church of the Holy Trinity.  Notes by music reviewer and lecturer Rick Phillips, originally written for the TMC’s 2007 performance of the Passio.

Arvo Pärt: Passio 

Estonian-born composer Arvo Pärt is, without question, one of the most popular of today’s living composers, but like others before him, his acceptance came with struggle and determination.  Born in 1935 near Tallinn, Pärt spent the early part of his musical career working as a recording engineer with Estonian Radio and composing music for film and theatre.  His early concert music, reflecting the influence of the serial techniques of Arnold Schoenberg and other avante-garde movements of the mid-twentieth century, got him into hot water with the Soviet cultural authorities.  Undeterred, Pärt soldiered on through the 1960s, but he began to immerse himself in the study of ancient musics like plainchant, two-part counterpoint and the music of the medieval and Renaissance masters.  By the mid-1970s, he had developed a new technique of composition that he called “tintinnabuli,” named after the bell-like resemblance of notes in a triad or a three-note chord.  Very basically, this method is a two-part texture where one part moves stepwise, up and down, to and from a central tone, while the other part moves through the three notes of a triad.  In a way, it’s a successful mix of the traditional modes and scales of early music, combined with the power of the more recent triad.  The resulting music sounds very simple, intentionally, but is actually quite complex.  The entire structure is predetermined by a mathematical pattern, or by the syntax and inflections of a particular text, and the corresponding relationship between the two parts follows a set pattern.  As Pärt has said of his tintinnabuli technique, “The melody and the accompaniment are one. One plus one is one – it is not two.  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.”

The shining beacon of Pärt’s tintinnabuli technique, and one of his most important works is “Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Secundum Joannem” or The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to John – his St. John Passion or known more simply as Passio.

It was finished in 1982, shortly after Pärt and his family were allowed out of Soviet-controlled Estonia and emigrated to the West.  Passio is a setting of the story of the crucifixion of Christ from chapters 18 and 19 of the biblical gospel of St. John.  There is a short devotional introduction off the top that sets up the narrative, and a concluding prayer to close – “You who have suffered for us, have mercy upon us.  Amen.”  The story-telling is assigned to the evangelist John as a small group of vocal soloists with the accompaniment of violin, oboe, cello and bassoon.  The role of Christ is a slow-moving bass, Pilate a quicker tenor, and both are accompanied by the organ.  The organ is also paired with the choir, who sing the remaining roles as well as that of the crowd, or turba.

Passio follows the practice of chanting the biblical narrative dating back to as early as the 4th century.  It is a stark, austere setting of the Passion story with a strong emphasis on the text.  The Latin narrative is presented in a kind of stylized recitation with little variety of colour and dynamics or even tunes.  As such, it differs drastically from the well-known settings of the St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion by J. S. Bach with their high drama and emotionally filled recitatives, arias, choruses, chorales and scenes.  In Pärt’s Passio, the music is the vehicle for the text, not the result of it.  As Pärt has said, “…the text is more important than the music because the text is stronger and has given food for hundreds and thousands of composers, and it will continue so.”  Passio is highly economical, clearly showing the love and influence of medieval plainchant.  But it doesn’t imitate plainchant, as much as it continues on from it.  It is music that is about as beautifully plain as it can be – bare-bones to say the least, and sometimes described as having a “bright sadness.”  Pärt avoids drama, moods and word-painting, stressing the neutrality of the text and making it “free of wilful interpretation,” as he puts it.  This economy of means can have a surprisingly powerful effect, as at the end, in the last words of Christ on the cross, “Consummatum est” or “It Is Finished.”  Who would have thought that a simple descending scale could be so moving!  Pärt goes so far as to specify exact durations of the silence between sections, based on the number of syllables in the last word of a sentence of the text.

Despite what seems, on the surface at least, to be mathematical and simplistic, Passio and the art of Pärt’s tintinnabuli technique of composition present a powerful, beautiful and unique work where the Passion text and its meaning shine through.  The doubts and scepticism of the crucifixion story seem to fall away, leaving simplicity and honesty within a direct mode of expression.  Passio by Arvo Pärt is a modern masterpiece – a moving experience for all, regardless of faith, religion or creed.

Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, reviewer, lecturer, concert host and musical tour guide.

You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: Thank you.