Arvo Pärt: Composer of Bright Sadness

Feast of Apostle Aristobulus of the Seventy, Bishop of Britain

Arvo-Pärt_small.jpgI hope each of you has had a significant moment in your life when music so deeply moved you that you could do nothing but listen and attend to its beauty. This is the posture of overwhelming wonder. Great composers lead their listeners to this sort of posture.

This is precisely what the contemporary composer Arvo Pärt does. At the last meeting of the Hall of Men on Feb. 26, Derek Hale graced us with a lecture on one of his personal heroes: Arvo Pärt. He argued that Pärt’s music is some of the most gripping original contemporary Christian music of the last century. According to Hale, Pärt is arguably the greatest contemporary Christian artist (in the absolute sense of each of the terms). He is contemporary because he composed during the same time as the Cold War, the Beatles, and the rise of global enterprise. He is Christian in his orthodox love for and attendance to Christ through his art. And finally, he is an artist in his use of music to embody mystery, wonder and beauty.

His story is set in our modern age. He grew up in the Eastern Bloc of the USSR, in the Baltic state of Estonia. He studied music at the Tallinn Conservatory and followed a call to compose contemporary classical works in the minimalist styles in vogue. His story is truly notable because of his slow conversion to hearing the beauty of the great traditions of earlier classical music. He intensely studied the chants of Gregorian monks and medieval Church music. In his schooling, this would have seemed a regression in his development as an artist. This unique return to the sources establishes a true sense of what is contemporary: that which is seated in the present for the modern ear, but rooted in the great history and tradition of that medium. 

ArvoPart.jpgPärt’s work is thoroughly Christian. Because he embodies an eternal mindset of what is contemporary, he also embodies a Christ-formed sense of beauty. As Hale noted, Pärt’s music is best described as “a bright sadness,” an expression used by Orthodox Christians to describe Lent (originally found in St John of the Ladder’s seventh century work The Ladder of Divine Ascent). These are words we wouldn’t normally put together: a bright sadness. I cannot help but see similarities between the paradoxical pairing of terms in this description and the kenotic nature of Christ. There seems to be a pouring out in Pärt’s composing and artistry in the same way that Christ empties himself and takes on the servanthood of all humanity. Pärt’s work seems to be an emptying of all that he has experienced and seen in his spiritual journey. His life’s work embodies a Christ-formed sense of beauty through a pouring out of near paradoxical emotions, rooted in the great tradition of musical composition. 

We are left to decide what makes Arvo Pärt’s a true artist. Having heard and performed some of his work in my own college choir, I can say that Pärt’s work has consistently pointed me to a deeper sense of wonder in both mystery and beauty. When I hear Pärt’s music, it is almost as if he has crafted a shady labyrinth of sounds and textures that are almost obvious, or almost what makes sense to me naturally; but not just yet. There seems to be a small amount of mysterious space and tension around what you hear, opposed against what you do not hear. This mysterious space creates what can truly be described as “a bright sadness.” Pärt personifies an intertwining of mystery and beauty, and therefore engenders wonder in his compositions. I believe this is what makes a true artist: one who can bring others to wonder through a careful refining of what is beautiful and mysterious. As an artist, Pärt takes us on a journey rooted in history and tradition, embodying a kenotic bright sadness, exploring the depths of beauty through a dabbling in the mysterious and not quite familiar. 

So why is Arvo Pärt a hero for us today? As a true contemporary Christian artist, he demonstrates that a fluency in the great tradition of classical music and the Fathers of the Church is vital to engaging modern culture effectively. Pärt’s example inspires us to go forward as contemporary people rooted in the great history of our faith in many different mediums as we seek to renew our culture.

“Here is to Arvo Pärt: Contemporary Christian Artist & Composer of Bright Sadness!”

“Here, Here!”


Nick is a recent graduate of Friends University with a major in Religion and Philosophy and Christian Spiritual formation. He works as a manager of a local coffee business and spends his free time expanding his skills in administration, organization development, writing, working with his hands, and enjoying good coffee or beer with great friends. 

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