Arvo Part's famous musical composition Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten begins and ends in silence. After three beats of stillness, one musician rings a bell three times with the slow solemnity of a death toll. The sounds of silence and death give way to the pure voice of strings which flows along in their wake. After a sublime, sorrowful opening in A minor, the violin beckons the warmer C major scale into the pulse of the piece. The strings follow one another on a quest for the deepest note, until finally each holds a long, steady low C, then breaks into silence. It is just one of Part's modern compositions in the classical style, and it perfectly reveals the man and his music.
Born in Estonia in 1935, the young Arvo had no musical instrument in the house except a broken piano. The middle section where most music is played barely made a sound, leading the boy to experiment with the less used notes at the extreme ends of the keyboard. Some have suggested that the intense contrasts in his later compositions may reflect these early explorations. He began formally studying music in 1954, playing in the military band for several years. After spending some time as a sound producer dabbling in composition, he began earnestly studying music from the medieval and Renaissance periods. Crystallized in its purity, this early music entranced him.
Before discovering the medieval and Renaissance music at the root of Western music, Part had chosen to compose thoroughly modern pieces based on Western experimental musical techniques, like twelve-tone technique and serialism. The Soviet Union in which Part lived did not take kindly to this modern Western music, and officials routinely banned Part's compositions from public performance. However, the genius of the work allowed him to win a variety of awards and accolades even in the Soviet Union. By 1968, Soviet oppression had encouraged him to abandon the modernist techniques, and a love of purity began to lead him to the early Western music.
At the heart of medieval music is unity. Many voices join to become one without distinction or ambition. While the modern Western techniques discovered new realms of music, they did so without pursuing unity. Arvo Part recovered the medieval sense of unified sound and brought it into the modern day. After a decade of silence spent contemplating this early Western music, the composer reemerged as a mature voice with Tabula Rasa, Spiegel im Spiegel, and In Memoriam Benjamin Britten. As part of his effort to return to the purity of the medieval and Renaissance sound, Part invented a new compositional technique called tintinnabuli. Although these classical compositions were steeped in the spirit of early music, they made use of the breadth of Part's expertise by incorporating elements of the orchestra which did not exist in medieval and Renaissance eras and by dwelling on the discordant elements of human emotion and experience. The combination of disparate influences resulted in a pure sound with a modern story. Part combines these influences to explore themes of forgiveness, sorrow, contemplation, and searching.
Soviet censors, however, continued the same opposition toward the new creations of the composer as they employed against his older work. Part's life as an artist proved very difficult. In 1980, he and his wife and sons finally managed to move to Austria, then to Germany. A few years later, he met a producer for a European recording label who helped spread Part's work. Few classical composers in the modern day attain public fame, particularly composers with experimental techniques. However, Part's compositions gained such notoriety that his concert seats fill with young families, hipsters, college students, and elderly music lovers. Despite Part's distance from modern musical fashions, members of every age and education level who hear his work understand that they have found something without borders: art which expresses the questions of humanity.