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Arvo Pärt

Fratres for violin and piano

February 18, 2024: Stefan Jackiw, violin; Michael Stephen Brown, piano

In 1960, while still a student at the Talinn Conservatory, Arvo Pärt won national attention for his Nekrolog, dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. It was the first work by an Estonian composer to use Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, so it created something of a scandal. The notoriety had its rewards, however, as it brought Pärt commissions from state sources and from cellist Rostropovich. Soon tired of his serial phase, Pärt began a series of alternations between creative output and withdrawal to search for a new style. One of his explorations came up with the collage technique, resulting in such compositions as his Collage on the Theme B-A-C-H (1964) and Second Symphony (1966).

During the 1970s Pärt supported himself by writing some fifty film scores. His Third Symphony (1971) followed one of his “withdrawal” periods, in which he studied fourteenth- to sixteenth-century polyphony, from Machaut to Josquin. He followed another of his “creative silences” with For Alina (1976), a small piano piece of high and low extremes. Pärt said he reached a “new plateau” with this piece: “It was here that I discovered the triad series, which I made my simple, little guiding rule.” He has written in this triadic style, which he calls “tintinnabuli” (after the bell-like resemblance of notes in the triad), ever since, with only slight modifications. From 1982, when he moved to Berlin, he has composed primarily religious works for chorus or small vocal ensembles.

Pärt composed Fratres, originally for string quintet and wind quintet, in 1977 for Hortus Musicus, an early-music ensemble in Tallinn. The title refers to the fraternal spirit of the Hortus Musicus. In the decades since then he has written versions of this popular piece for many different combinations: wind octet and percussion, strings and percussion, and string quartet—and versions in which violin, cello, or guitar take a solo role.

In the violin and piano version, the violin alone introduces the piece’s essential hymnlike theme in its low register under virtuosic string crossings that transmit Pärt’s triadic harmonies. The hymnlike additive theme—reminiscent of a style of medieval church singing called organum—recurs eight times in the piano, employing slight variants but always in the same contour and with the same rhythmic pattern. The violin weaves imaginative “variations” through and around this framework. Pärt employs a brief, low tolling in the piano punctuated by percussive strums of the violin to separate each recurrence. The dynamics create an arch form, moving from soft to loud and back, with a particularly climactic use of double-stop chords in the violin’s central “variation.” The piece concludes with the quiet tolling measures.

—©Jane Vial Jaffe

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