Pärt: Symphony No 4 (2009)

Pärt: Symphony No 4 (2009)

This is new music. It is probably the best modern symphony I’ve heard and that is why I’m writing about it. I’m intrigued by the link with angels - our need for angels and to express the idea of angels. This territory seems to be linked in the minds of various composers including Pärt and Rautuvaara and I enjoy their explorations. I would be interested to hear views on where, for you - angels appear in this piece. But I hope this note helps you enjoy it.

In a short interview broadcast on Radio 3 in Summer 2010, Arvo Pärt corrected the interviewer who asked about the idea of the angel in his Fourth symphony, Pärt replied that this “was not an idea - this is reality”. The symphony was getting it’s UK premiere at the 2010 Proms and Pärt went on to say that “they are all around us and even if we don’t see them everyone will wish it could be so” and went on “it will be very useful for every people to think about our guardian angels”.

The symphony is subtitled “Los Angeles” and is both a meditation on angels and a tribute to the symphony’s commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. I came to hear the work on Radio 3 conducted by the Salonen and played by the strings and percussion section of the Philharmonia.

You can watch Salonen conduct the piece here with an excellent commentary on the work and its performance from Peter Stark: here

There’s also a recording of the premiere of the work which Salonen gave with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on 10 Jan 2009 at Walt Disney Hall and Spotify links to that recording are given for those with the facility.

Although its not necessarily obvious on first hearing this is a simply structured symphony with standard sections which can be easily delineated through instrumentation, mood and to a certain extent tempo. The elements which are not obvious are melodies or rather big tunes, but what happens seems to have a melodic relationship which over time gives a structure. less obvious is a sense of where the music is going harmonically.

Pärt delivers his thoughts on angels with an typical and admirable element of space created by silence and spareness. His view of our angels is, I take from this, one where their simple works exist in a crowded and complex landscape which is not completely understood and in which travelling is hard and worrisome. The symphony offers now ending in paradise: ever pragmatic Pärt encourages to soldier on.

First Movement

On Spotify here:

This movement is split into three sections: an opening “Con sublimità” section of highly concentrated stillness, a central section - march-like and defiant and a final section of peace - but I’m yet undecided whether this is peaceful compliance or a more resigned aspect.

The music opens in a hushed and still tone - progress and atmosphere are glacial - and like a glacier the simplistic beauty is so overwhelming as to be strangely threatening. For a full 6 minutes or so the music sets long sustain strings notes of delicate constitution against, at first pizzicato punctuation from low strings then later interjections from harp and bells. The process entails a gradual descending scale and a muted but restricted mixed sense of darken timbre and crescendo and decrescendo. The character of the music here is full of potential but sets up none of the immediate drama of a classical or romantic symphony. As so much of Pärt’s music it pervades the scene with so little sense of movement arising from its own substance it may as well be mist or perhaps more potently, smoke from an unseen censer. It would be easy to conclude this music goes nowhere, but Pärt has that knack of slowing us down to a near standstill but keeping us going.

A pause provides the most intense dramatic device in the movement, the silence is broken by hesitant timpani strokes which build and usher in more vigorous music. String phrases of formidable power stride out but in a variety of rhythmical groups, disorientating the listener searching for patterns. Each strophe is marked with percussion. There’s not security here in harmonic, melodic or rhythmical terms - a sense of our own uncertainty is redolent in the music. And just as the head of steam builds it thins to a mist and then complete transparency before another pause.

Its often reported that it is the space/silence between the notes that should be important to the Mozart pianist. And so its true here: the full drama of this piece is revealed when we listen to the silences and appreciate them for what they are - a potential for sounds to come.

The final 5 minutes or so is more familiar and although still exotic - the string textures remind us of Wagner or Vaughan Williams but the tone is utterly resigned, sad and tear-stained. These familiar pastures give us an emotional foot hold of sorts. The harps tolls like a bell and the bells are silent - its all about resonance. Its an opportunity to just absorb Pärt’s sound world and each time we listen more and more detail about each of these chords becomes apparent. And when high strings supplement the low ones a little before the end of the movement, the ambiguity is compounded. The harp is key here and the writing for it is telling - almost more like an organ with its suspended sound floating. The dimming threads of sound, slow again and a there’s an ominous empty feeling when the music stops, hushed but in mid air.

Second movement

On Spotify here

This movement opens with a slow but more defiant approach. Marimba, sizzle cymbal and crotales (small bells) replace the harp and bells in this movement and the marimba immediately signals a different mood. The figures on strings move between a healthy ostinato, the triplets on the low strings and more spread expansive chords. The score marking is “laboured” and the defiance is short lived as hesitancy seems to limit progress. These are all personal traits applied to what seems to be a very individual struggle.

There’s a broader sweep here - almost behind the hesitancy - this combined with the seemingly ad hoc percussion interventions add an eerie quality (bordering on sinister) - one might come to hear this as a voice struggling to be heard against a sound. Maybe this is a emotional link to Pärt’s dedication of this work to a “political” prisoner in Russia. These swimming figures become more oppressive with the introduction of a bass drum rolling beneath the high strings like the dull roar of heavy traffic. A drum roll punctuates in more emphatic fashion but the music is very liquid at this stage and the apparent formlessness extends for bar after bar. Whist this is mysterious its is earthbound, dynamic and static, recognisable and yet shapeless and resilient but also full of stress. It is another reminder of the environment in which all our angels have to operate. The silence here becomes a huge part of the sound picture - fuelling the nervous tension but woven in with such a high skill that it is both a barrier to progress and movement itself. After a time the interjections quicken and a nervous anticipation fills the air.

About three quarters of the way through (at about 12 mins) - there is an event - decisive in the terms of the symphony. It is a musical pivot point throwing us forward. The crescendo on bass drum followed by telling strikes which echo around (in performance very carefully judged). The strings shiver as if in shock is followed by a low pedal note both of which cleave the progress of the earlier hesitancy. This mirrors out lives in some many ways - sudden events propel us out of routine. A soft less hesitant melody on violas and falling strings which fade complete the transformation. This marks a move to the final section of this movement, marked sorrowful. The music drifts off - the pedal giving us more security: previous hesitancy now more like the deep breaths within the music. And yet the tailing off seems to be incomplete again. we are becoming accustomed to Pärt’s view of continuity and completion.

Third Movement

On Spotify here

In an echo of the first movement both harps and bells are back in this movement.

A spread chord is punctuated by the harp: the writing is more familiar. The high and low strings have thicker textures and this in turn seems give the silences more weight. But we are in the same mood as previous movements, but the uncertainty is less febrile. Nervousness has given way to portent. A heavy low sustained string chord and agitated strings bells and drums combine with urgency and intent we haven’t heard before. There will be dis-ease in this movement but it will be of a different type. The result is a surprising A minor chord on the harp followed by a delicate and beautiful sublime violin solo.

This movement is bitonal - the two tonalities of A minor and A major jostle for primacy in the strings. When A minor appears in this pool of light it has a substantial effect which is probably only fully experienced once the working is under your skin. But it feels as though the music has at last found a home or a base, some security at least. The strings descend slowly but in doing so twist outward with great poignancy. Ambiguity returns - our moment of security is slipping through our fingers and we sit on the sea of uncertainty again. Hesitancy returns: a moments calm and rest slides away. The solo violin seems to have lost traction too. A percussion interjection takes us swiftly to the coda of this movement and the epilogue of the work.

There are other models for bitonal conclusions: when Richard Strauss penned Also Sprach Zarathustra the dichotomy between man and nature had been written large by his inspiration, Nietzsche. Vaughan Williams “resolves” with nothing less than the orchestral equivalent of a pistol shot to the temple in his bitonal Fourth Symphony. Pärt is closer to the latter, but chooses a different route.

A decisive marching rhythm starting low on harp and basses builds in volume and substance. The mood seems resolute. As the higher strings join in group by group, ambiguity is maintain with the A minor/A major conflict, but there is heightening certainty. But as the low instruments drop away and the violins play high notes and then extend the harmonics the lead proves to be false, the intent a red herring and the resolution a false dawn. At its highest the music becomes tissue thin and diaphanous. The silence into which this falls is a hole - no delicate weaving here. And the last harp chord and the response from the percussion seal the fate of us all, angels and those who call upon them. It is done.

In closing I’d like to point up three things about the Fourth Symphony by Arvo Pärt.

First - here is work written in the last 5 years which is, I have little doubt, a masterpiece. On inspection and familiarisation, it yields subtleties and treasures.

Second - it is eminently performable so it will endure, and not just with Salonen’s advocacy, but can and should be taken up by others. Audiences will come to it on disc and in the concert hall as a mature work of one of our finest composers of our age.

Thirdly - this is a three movement symphony with two outer movements divided into three parts and a central movement which contains a climactic fulcrum. There’s nothing complicated in that - or novel. It is novel in so many other ways and it is in a distinct instrumental voice; it could be by no one else. In this era all of these qualities are to be welcomed.

Stephen North
Feb 2011


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