Welcome to Day ‘P’ of my Alphabet Challenge! After the intense and powerful forces of Carl Orff’s O Fortuna, this blog is taking it down a few notches to a serene and absolutely beautiful work by Estonian composer, Avro Pärt. Spiegel im Speigel is perhaps one of Pärt’s most well-known compositions, and I am looking forward to sharing it with you all today.
Avro Pärt was born in Paide, Estonia in 1935. Dabbling with music from a young age, it wasn’t until 1954, when Pärt studied at the Tallinn Music Middle School. However, after less than a year at the school, Pärt abandoned his studies to join the military, where he played oboe and percussion in the army band. After his service in the army, Pärt attended the prestigious Tallinn Conservatory, where he studied composition with Heino Eller. Whilst studying at the conservatory, Pärt largely composed music fro stage, film and theatre.
Pärt’s musical style has been widely discussed, with most agreeing that he has played a large part in the school of minimalism, more specifically holy minimalism (similar to contemporaries such as John Tavener). Pärt’s compositional time line can be split into 2-3 sections, with the first drawing upon neo-classical influences from the likes of Bartók and Prokofiev. The second being his use of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, making his music resonant of the serialism movement. The third, and is now what Pärt is best-known for, is his choral music. Pärt studied music from the 14th-16th Centuries and began immersing himself in older musical traditions such as polyphony, plainsong and Gregorian Chant. From the 1970s onwards, Pärt’s musical output radically changed and his works became part of a period called ‘tintinnabuli’ (‘like the ringing of bells’). Compositions such as Cantus in Memoriam Bejamin Britten, Tabula Rasa and Spiegel im Spiegel all demonstrate this new technique Pärt was developing. As well as smaller scale works, Pärt has also composed large-scale works inspired by religious texts, such as his St. John Passion, Te Deum and Magnificat.
For the last five years, Pärt has been the most performed living composer in the world. He is recognised around the world for his music, and his services to the arts. He has won a plethora of awards including the Léonie Sonnig Music Prize (2008) and the Ratzinger Prize (2017). He is an Estonian national treasure, and although it took a while for his popularity to spread in his own country, his popularity around the world is immense.
Spigel im Spiegel (Mirrors in the Mirror) was composed in 1978, just before his departure from Estonia to Berlin. Originally composed for piano and violin, there have been many different versions of the work, for example the violin being replaced by a cello or double bass. Known as Pärt’s most ingenious work, Spiegel im Spiegel is meditative, and its simplicity makes it part of the minimalist movement. The popularity of this work is largely down to its frequent use in film and TV soundtracks.
The title of the work, Spiegel im Spiegel translates into both ‘mirror in the mirror’ and ‘mirrors in the mirror’ which refers to the infinity of images that can be produced by multiple mirrors together. This idea is expressed through the piano throughout, with its endless fragments of accompaniments. With this work evoking Pärt’s famous ‘tintinnabuli’ style, the opening piano motif is resonant of the twilight first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 27 No. 2 ‘Moonlight’. These incredibly peaceful triplets are hypnotizing and so simple that it makes you forget that it’s even there at points! The recurring motifs of the piece come from the rising broken chords from the piano, and the long sustained notes from the other instrument (for the sake of this blog I will refer to the original instrument – the violin).
The piano parts reaffirms the melody notes from the violin and accentuates the very small shifts in tonality throughout. The piano reflects the melody line with thirds and octaves. The work is in F major, and technically stays there throughout, although there are some hints at other keys throughout. Although the ‘right hand’ part of the piano is always omnipresent, there is every so often a low sustained F played by the ‘left hand’, which, again, accentuates the tonality of the work.
As aforementioned, the ‘titinnabular’ effect is like ringing bells, which comes across from the high bell-like harmonics from the upper registers, heard in both instruments. The violin line is based on a very slow and simple ascending melodic line, beginning on a G-A scale. This develops into the melody moving in step motion, and with each new step, a new mirror appears and the idea of perfect tranquillity is reaffirmed. Unlike many other forms of classical music, minimalism often (not always) relies on atmosphere and the sonorities made by the instruments, rather than there being any real drama in the work, and this can not be more true for Spiegel im Spiegel. The work develops, but I would dare to say it doesn’t climax. The parts explore range, timbre, texture and colour, which add to the overall atmosphere of the piece.
The violin part always returns to A, and there appears to be a pattern where there is an ascending sequence (the question), and then a descending sequence (the answer), which contributes to the impression of a figure reflecting on a mirror and then walking back and towards it. The idea of the infinity of images in the infinity mirror is so very powerful throughout, and it is very easy for one to get completely engrossed in its stories.
With both parts being extremely bare and simple, it is pertinent for the performers to have faith in the composer’s ability to create this musical tranquillity, in other words not ‘over milking’ the melody lines with the use of dynamics, vibrato and such. The work is very gentle, and should be treated so. Spiegel im Spiegel ends with a ritardando, with the music finishing exactly how it began, with the repeated triadic movement from the piano, and a sustained A in the violin.
Spiegel im Spiegel is a wonderfully serene work that has been heard in films such as Elegy, Dear Frankie and Foxtrot. As well as on screen and stage, this work is also very popular to record, with many artists aspiring to find the right balance in their recordings. Pärt’s contribution to classical music is inspiring, and so are his many works.
I do hope you have enjoyed this instalment of my Alphabet Challenge – I have really enjoyed engaging and writing about this incredible work! I’d like to dedicate this blog to my mum, who absolutely loves this work, and is always my biggest fan – lots of love. Join me very soon for Day ‘Q’ of my challenge!