Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1977) – Arvo Pärt (1935 – )
Although there is no compositional school that follows him and he does not teach, Arvo Pärt’s impact on the music of today is profound. His life story is a reflection of the power of creativity to negotiate boundaries. Born in Paide, Estonia, he is playing piano by age 3 and studies at the Rakvere and Tallinn Music Schools. He does his mandatory service in the Soviet Army and becomes one of the leading figures in the Soviet avant-garde. However, his reception in the Soviet Union is complicated, and when he confesses to being religious, some of his music is banned and he falls into disfavor. In his quest for deeper expression Pärt creates a new musical language and spiritual ideology, tintinnabuli, which causes more confrontations with officials. Pärt and his family are forced to emigrate to Vienna and later to Berlin. When Estonia gains its independence in 1991, Pärt returns to his homeland, and at present his work is housed at the Arvo Pärt Centre, located in a beautiful pine forest near the sea in Laulasmaa, Estonia.
Pärt’s tintinnabuli, from tintinnabulum – Latin for ‘little bell,’ is the style he births in 1976. It is a technique for bringing together both melody and the components of a triad to create unity, governed in part by complicated mathematical formulas. In this style musical material becomes extremely concentrated and integrated in the art of polyphony; it ultimately expresses the composer’s special relationship to silence. And, tintinnabuli is also an ideology, based on Pärt’s Christian values and his quest for truth. Pärt has been composing in this style for over 40 years.
Arvo Pärt greatly admired Benjamin Britten, drawn to the purity of his music. His Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten employs a tolling “A” bell, a single melodic motif, and scores silence to begin and end the piece. Using both tintinnabuli and musical canon, the six minute work centers on an A-minor scale, repeated in descending pattern. Each subsequent entrance of the scale is an octave lower and half the tempo of the preceding line, creating five layers. The result is lush, spiritual, and hypnotic with the bell ringing and dying away throughout the piece. We are left in silence that is not absence but in silence that is sound. The work is “not only profoundly beautiful but also beautifully profound.”
Pärt’s instrumentation for Cantus is string orchestra and bell.
Simple Symphony, Op. 4 (1933 – 1934) – Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976)
In the early 20th century Benjamin Britten seems a model British middle class boy, enjoying cricket and making steady progress in school. But, he is also composing by age 5, playing viola and piano by age 10, and by age 14 writing pages and pages of music, amassing a catalog of 100 works. Britten keeps track of these early pieces and after his studies at the Royal College of Music sometimes revisits them.
Written when he is twenty, the Simple Symphony is such an example. Seeking more work as a composer, Britten considers music for schools, and, drawing from eight of his young teenage pieces, he conceives his Simple Symphony. It will be a work that can be played by either string orchestras at bigger schools or string quartets at smaller institutions. But, it is also a work of deep thanks, since Britten dedicates the piece to his viola teacher and first musical mentor, Audrey Alston, who is responsible for introducing him to his second mentor, composition teacher Frank Bridge.
Simple Symphony avoids the typical classical movement “tempo” titles in favor of more delightful, imaginative descriptions. In shape the movements are typical with the first and last in sonata form, surrounding a scherzo and a slow movement. Boisterous Bourree is based on Britten’s piano Suite No. 1-Bourree and a vocal song, Country Dance; it opens the symphony with spirit and baroque counterpoint. Playful Pizzicato is centered on a piano Scherzo and a vocal song,The Road Song of the “Bandar-Log.” Plucked throughout both its good humored scherzo and trio sections, the second movement is to be played as fast as possible (presto possible pizzicato sempre) and alternates between a baroque jig and stomping accents in the slower trio. Sentimental Saraband draws from piano Suite No. 3 and a Waltz. With the feel of a modal British folk song, this movement alternates between an achingly tender first section, a graceful second part, and then returns to the haunting mood of the opening material. Finally, Frolicsome Finale includes bits from Piano Sonata No. 9 and an unidentified Song. In this final movement there’s a kind of athleticism, combined with a syncopated accompaniment and jolts of harmony and meter, all coalescing in a triumphal tone.
Britten premiered Simple Symphony in 1934, conducting an amateur orchestra. He would be amused to know that the piece is featured in the 2012 Wes Anderson film, Moonrise Kingdom, which prominently highlights other Britten pieces as its soundtrack.
Britten scores his symphony for 1st violin, 2nd violin, viola, cello and contrabass.
Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33 (1872) – Camille Saint-Säens (1835 – 1921)
Allegro non troppo
Allegretto con moto
Camille Saint-Säens is indeed a man of many dimensions. A performer on both piano and organ, he is also a champion of early music and contemporary composers. He is a teacher and professor, a gifted writer, a world traveler, and a student of classical languages, astronomy, archaeology, philosophy, and the occult. But, in the 1870s national events altered his life.
Imagine a humiliating defeat by German States, dissolution of Napoleon III’s empire, and Parisian revolt. Camille Saint-Säens himself flees the siege of Paris, escaping bombardment and starvation. Finally, some stability returns and, with it, a desire for new French Art. It is into this moment of possibility in 1871 that Saint-Säens returns. He helps establish the Societe Nationale de Musique, whose goals are to promote French instrumental music and repel interest in German music. And, at 37 Saint-Säens begins work on this concerto.
His Cello Concerto No. 1 is written for Auguste Tolbecque, who is not only a cellist but also a viola da gamba player, an instrument maker, and a member of a family associated with France’s leading concert society. Thus, the piece is a mark of the composer’s growing esteem within French musical circles.
Structurally, this work is distinct because the concerto is one continuous movement with three sections that share interrelated ideas or cyclical development. In this aspect Saint-Säens may have been impacted by the work of Franz Liszt. The first section, Allegro non troppo, dispenses with the usual orchestral introduction. There is only one full orchestra chord; the solo cello immediately states the main motif with other melodies in a call and answer dialogue between soloist and orchestra following. The second section, Allegretto con moto, features a muted minuet and a cello cadenza. Finally, the Tempo primo restates the opening material and along with new themes and the fourth theme of the first section.
The concerto is written for solo cello and 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani plus strings.
Program Note Sources
Arvo Pärt Biography – Arvo Part Centre, arvopart.ee/en/arvo-part/biography/
Arvo Pärt’s Cantus – Sabrina Parry, the orchestranow.org/arvo-parts-cantus, March 20, 2021
A Study of Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten by Arvo Pärt, Dharmacari Jayarava, jayarava.org/cantus
Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten – Karin Kopra, Music in Movement, 2017
Tintinnabuli – technique, style, or ideology – Music in Movement, 2017
Saint Säens: Cello Concerto No. 1 – James Keller, San Francisco Symphony Notes, May, 2018
Saint Säens: Cello Concerto No. 1 – Max Derrickson, Program Notes, March 26, 2013
Simple and Plain – Maureen Buja, interlude.hk/simple-plain, May, 29 2018
Revisiting the Past Benjamin Britten: A Simple Symphony – Maureen Buja, interlude.hk/revisiting-the-past-benjamin-britten-a-simple-symphony, October 2, 2019
Benjamin Britten Simple Symphony – wisemusicclassical.com/work/43248/Simple-Symphony, 2021
Benjamin Britten: Simple Symphony – Luke Lewis, Programme Notes, 2015
Simple Symphony Benjamin Britten – John Henken, hollywoodbowl.com/musicdb/3302/simple- symphony
Program Notes by Pat Badger