Arvo Pärt: Summa


Summa was first composed in 1978 by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt as a choral work. Some twelve years later, Pärt arranged Summa for string orchestra, which is perhaps the more-performed version today (and the version this blog will focus on). The work reflects the original text used in the choral version, which is text from the Credo of the Mass. The work reflects Pärt’s tonal style he called “tintinnabulation”, which is inspired by Medieval chant:


“Tintinnabulation is like this. Here, I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”


The Music

This gentle string orchestra work gently rocks to and fro  as Pärt experiments with the character of the piece. The two-note motif that begins the work is at the core of the piece and can be heard numerous times throughout the course of the five-minute work. Going along with his tintinnabulation idea, Summa works with the regularity of Baroque music – i.e the time signature and repetition of motifs. However, it differs from Baroque music in the sense that it is charmingly simple, and without too much complication. 

The two-note motif is like a mantra that is repeated over and over again. With each repetition, Pärt has experimented with the orchestration. Some sound richer, while others are quieter in dynamic and barer in scoring. The openness of the work goes hand in hand with the mesmerising harmony that Pärt uses, as well as the transcendent sound of the sonorous strings. 


Final Thoughts

Arvo Pärt’s Summa is an effective exploration of spiritual transcendence through music. The composer’s use of harmony and texture makes Summa a truly dazzling work.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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