musica reservata :
a style of composition of the late 16th c.
which may involve
intensely expressive and highly chromatic music
intended, in all likelihood, for consumption by
Florilegium Chamber Choir
György Ligeti (1923 – 2006) Selected folk song arrangements
Arvo Pärt (b.1935) – Berliner Messe (1990)
Hynryk Gorecki (1933-2010) – Amen (1975)
I have long been fascinated by the relationship of music to cultures of oppression. From 19th Century African American spirituals to the 20th Century Zulu songs of Apartheid South Africa to the carefully soundtracked YouTube clips and NPR reports of song-filled revolutionary encampments in Middle Eastern capitals, from Peter Seeger to Shostakovich to Grandmaster Flash (there are countless other examples), voices united give strength to the powerless, volume to the muted, undeniable presence to the invisible, and of course, solace to the inconsolable; often the music of these times and places is a means to preserve culture, a form of living memory.
Curiously, the Soviet stance toward song (toward folk song and toward choral singing) was not unequivocal from one occupied territory to another or from one decade to another. As a 20-something in the heavily Stalinist People’s Republic of Hungary, Györgi Ligeti was compelled to focus his compositional work on arranging folk songs so as to escape scrutiny as an intellectual. It was not until he fled to Vienna, just prior to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, that he was able to turn his attention to a more ambitious modernist language, for which Stanley Kubrik made him internationally famous. As I read the text of these songs, just under half of his published folk song arrangements, I can’t help but wonder if the scenes depicted carry a second meaning relevant to the time and place of their arranging.
Years later, in Estonia, folk song was banned outright by the regime. In 1987 there erupted a series of massive protests in Tallinn marked by the spontaneous singing of banned national songs. These protests, which eventually came to be known as the Singing Revolution, ultimately played a major role in the peaceful liberation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from Soviet control.
Arvo Pärt was not in Estonia for the Singing Revolution. Following years of struggle with Soviet authorities, Pärt left in 1980 and settled in Berlin, only returning in 2002. Pärt’s musical journey took him in the opposite direction of Ligeti. Through illegal recordings and contraband scores (obtained during his years working for Estonian Radio) he was able to absorb some of the contemporary trends in European music into his compositional language (for a real eye-opener, listen to his Third Symphony). By the early 1970’s he felt this road to be a dead end and stopped composing altogether for five years. In 1976 he wrote his first piece in a style that would become synonymous with his name: “tintinnabulation” (the ringing of bells). Pärt’s language merges Eastern Orthodox chant, the timbre of bells (ubiquitous in Tallinn), and a kind of distanced anonymity, a submerging of the creative ego in a deep and concentrated listening. Curiously it was this very turn away from modernism and towards simplicity that launched Pärt to the international stage via a handful of ECM recordings made in the early 1980’s.
Gorecki’s biography almost parallels Pärt’s – he too developed a modernist language during the 60’s only to abandon it in the 70’s; he too turned to his religious beliefs to discover a new, simpler language that would define him for international audiences. Unlike Pärt and Ligeti, however, Gorecki never left his homeland of Poland. Rather, he taught throughout his life at the Academy of Music in Katowice and worked quietly for decades in a persistent shortage economy to keep Soviet interference out of the direction of the Academy. It was Dawn Upshaw’s recording of his Symphony Number Three that brought the international spotlight to Katowice.
The three composers on this concert share (at least) three things, one is their position as artists working within an oppressive social structure, second is their artistic transcendence of the regime, third is the indescribable hold their work has over the rest of us.
Ligeti died in 2006, Gorecki died this past November. Pärt is still alive and you can watch videos of him giving master classes on YouTube.
© Nicholas DeMaison 2011
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