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Sunday Night Journal — March 25, 2007

Music of the Week — March 25, 2007

Arvo Pärt: Kanon Pokajanen

I’ve heard only a fairly small portion of Pärt’s music, so I can’t say that this is his masterpiece. I do feel justified in saying that it is a masterpiece. I’m sorry that I was not able to get this note onto the web well before Lent was over, as Kanon Pokajanen could hardly be bettered as a devotional assistance for a time of penance. The only reservation would be whether the pleasure it provides works too much against the penitential intent.

Pärt, as anyone who has even the least acquaintance with contemporary music knows, is among a group of Christian composers sometimes called the Holy Minimalists. Like most labels, that one is not without some usefulness as long as you don’t expect too much from it. This music can be described as minimalist in that it uses a small number of building blocks which are themselves relatively simple: melodic fragments or motifs, too brief to be described as themes in the manner of those usually found in a Classical or Romantic symphony. An analog from that repertoire would be the famous four-note theme from Beethoven’s 5th symphony. But whereas Beethoven combines that motif with others and spins yards of complex stuff out of them, Pärt relies on careful placement and repetition. It’s almost as if someone had written a thousand-line poem using only, say, fifty nouns and ten each of verbs, adverbs, and adjectives.

There is very little here that one would come away humming, and yet it creates a musical and spiritual world that, taken on its own terms, lacks for nothing, though it takes some getting into, some acceptance of those terms. My reaction upon a first casual listen was that it all sounded the same. And it is roughly 84 minutes of unaccompanied choral music without much dramatic variety in comparison to, say, a baroque oratorio. Aside from variations in the material itself, there are louder and softer passages, and passages which are either all male or all female or mixed, and these are used in a way that’s closely integrated with the structure of the text.

As I don’t intend to write a lengthy essay, I’m not going to try to describe the work in greater detail. It is crucial to note, though, that it’s a setting of an Orthodox litany called the Canon of Repentance, and that the musical resources are entirely at the service of this text. I don’t see how one could get deeply involved with the music without entering, at least for the moment, into the mind of the litany. To one who can do so it is a truly remarkable work. One of the notes I made after a third hearing is that it’s the sound that would be produced by the deepest core of the soul, especially the Christian soul conscious of sin.

There’s one mild frustration for me: the text is in Old Slavonic. With most Western Christian musical works, the texts are in Latin or in one of the commonly-studied European languages. If you have even a smattering of the language, you can see the details of the way words and music fit and work together, so that you know the placement, and feel the individual significance, of each word. That won’t be possible for most of us with the Kanon—we’re presented with several paragraphs of translated text which take five to ten minutes to sing, but we can’t tell exactly which words are being sung at any moment (although one does soon learn to recognize certain refrains, such as “Glory to the father, and to the Son…”).

The performance, the recording, and the packaging are all up to the usual ECM standards, which is to say near-perfect.



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