Arvo Pärt: Spiegel im Spiegel

Context

Arvo Pärt was born in Paide, Estonia in 1935. Surrounded by 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 for stage, film and theatre.

For the last five years, Pärt has been the most performed living composer in the world. 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.

The Music

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 a range of different instruments. Known as Pärt’s most ingenious work, Spiegel im Spiegel is meditative, and its simplicity makes it a staple 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 peaceful triplets are hypnotizing due to their unchanging nature. The recurring motifs of the piece come from the rising broken chords from the piano, and the long sustained notes come from the solo instrument.

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. 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 also 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 relies on atmosphere and the sonorities made by the instruments and this can not be more true for Spiegel im Spiegel. The work develops, but I would dare to say it doesn’t climax dramatically. 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 very powerful throughout, and it is very easy for one to get completely engrossed in its stories.

Spiegel im Spiegel ends with a ritardando, with the music finishing exactly how it began, with the repeated triadic movement from the piano, and the sustained A in the violin. The work mirrors itself bringing it full circle by the end. A truly meditative work, Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel is one of the most iconic minimalist works.

Happy Reading!

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