Arvo Pärt and The Deer’s Cry: Sacred Art in a Profane Age

I

After experimenting for much of his early career with twelve-tone serialism and dissonance and other modern techniques, for which he was of course censored by the Communist authorities in Estonia, Arvo Pärt found a much deeper history and spiritual beauty in his studies in Renaissance polyphony and religious music such as Gregorian chant. Converting to the Russian Orthodox Church from the Lutheranism of his childhood, Pärt then concentrated on explicitly Christian themes, which made his work even more difficult to publish under the Communist government, which ultimately forced his emigration to the free West. The album he released last year shows little trace of that early experimentalism, with an immaculate, shining tonal sense providing it with rarefied dignity and the grandeur of tradition, but it shows every sign of the faith that led him into Orthodoxy and out of the Iron Curtain.

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As this is a kind of sacred art, our attention to it must take a different form than that of our normal reviews, which most often cover profane art. Frithjof Schuon says that, ‘In sacred art what takes precedence over everything else is the content and use of the work; whereas in profane art these are but a pretext for the joys of creation.’ So, while reviewing other albums we have in mind the artistic substance of the album, the form of the composition, the aesthetic impression it creates, here the content comes first; we might say that, where for Schiller ‘In a truly beautiful work of art the content should do nothing, the form everything,’ in a sacred work of art the content defines the form, or rather it refines the form. The function of the art as well as the thematic quality of the art elevate the art’s formal constitution to resemble the high nature of its object. The purpose of the art determines the art’s composition: ‘The end of religious image making is not to be beautiful in itself, but, rather, it is to fulfill successfully its religious function’ (Etienne Gilson). This means that, while one objective of profane art is to be ‘beautiful in itself’ (it could and indeed should have functions of its own), the objective of sacred art is to inspire beauty, to guide the viewer (or listener) into a tender spiritual state where he can contemplate beauty in a meaningful, meditative way.

We can get a better idea of what sacred art is in a comparative and historical manner. Firstly, in medieval art the aim was invariably to symbolize higher realities, to make intelligible the invisible. Because medievals had such strong, intuitive, and organic relationships with their religion, they were able to subordinate all other ends to it; the medieval intellect was solely occupied with God, hence God’s presence animated their entire world. They understood that art is a means, just as beauty is a means; they both reflect and lead to something beyond matter altogether. A simple tool (which is no less a work of art than is Michelangelo’s David, despite what modern aesthetics would have us think) is not simply conceived as a tool, but becomes a symbol of gainful production, of fertility, of the annual harvest; it’s a symbol of recurring life. Medievals very seldom had individual statues built in isolation from a building or bridge because they understood that art exists only in relation to a whole; the saints and gargoyles are constructed into the church because they only have real meaning in connection to a greater reality, just as protagonists and antagonists only have real meaning in connection to the narrative that tells their story.

On the other hand, the art of the Renaissance, while certainly magnificent in its way, suffered from a confusion of ends. In the Renaissance the aim increasingly became to beautify the work of art in itself, which meant the division of a thing from its symbolical import. A work of art was simply that, something ‘beautiful,’ something that pleases the senses when looked at but nothing more. While Renaissance artwork continued to be incorporated into ecclesial and communal buildings (it’s impossible to imagine the Sistine Chapel without Raphael), this kind of mentality gradually crept into them. This is also shown in how newly successful merchants playing at aristocrats started to hoard private works of art to themselves, effectively stealing them from the commons by depriving them of their proper place in ‘the greater reality.’ Statuary was no longer concentrated in cathedrals; lonesome sculptures thrived by themselves, isolated from the whole.

The essential difference between medieval and Renaissance art, which became more and more pronounced as modernity emerged, is that the former aspired to reflect the intelligence of the cosmos and make it more meaningful for man while the latter sought simply to make beautiful things, seemingly out of an atavistic pagan pride that had divorced man from the imago Dei. It can be said this way: whereas the medievals glorified God through matter, later artists glorified matter and forgot God. There is an ancient wisdom that they also forgot, which is that a work of art is not supposed to capture the entirety of our attention; it’s supposed to direct us away from it, or through it. Us moderns may laugh at some of the more odd-looking medieval drawings or icons, but we miss the point: we’re supposed to meditate on what’s represented, not the fine forms or pictures in the artwork. Renaissance art can ensnare us with its thematic splendour, its immaculate lines, and its wondrous colours, but these are all distractions from the main purpose of art: to communicate meaning. By assuming the entirety of the meaning to consist of what it portrays in itself, Renaissance art ceased to communicate anything beyond itself. Sacred art is often minimalistic because it recognizes that it is not the destination itself, but merely a sign pointing the way to it. Modern art ceases to be a means and becomes an end on its own – l’art pour l’art.

Since the full meaning of sacred art can only be known by understanding its symbolic meaning, it’s only really ever known by those deeply attuned with a work’s intellectual and religious content. An atheist can never connect himself in this way to any piece of sacred art; the best he can do is admire its workmanship, or experience some vague ‘spiritual feelings.’ Coomaraswamy states as much with superior clarity, rendering anything else said on the matter superfluous:

‘The collector who owns a crucifix of the finest period and workmanship, and merely enjoys its “beauty,” is in a very different position from that of the equally sensitive worshipper, who also feeds its power, and is actually moved to take up his own cross; only the latter can be said to have understood the work in its entirety, only the former can be called a fetishist.’

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II

Since we can classify Arvo Pärt’s music as sacred art, naturally it’ll be conceived differently by listeners of different faiths. It is nevertheless possible without too much bias to define some elements of its structure, and even to add a few words on the nature of its atmosphere and how it presents itself, notwithstanding the obvious subjectivity involved therein.

In The Deer’s Cry, which is a collection of older songs recorded in 2013/14 but only released in late 2016, we are re-introduced to Pärt’s neat, clean, and minimalist style. Pärt calls this ‘tintinnabulation,’ a reference firstly to the sound of church bells calling the faithful to mass, but also to his compositional technique: ‘The three notes of a triad are like bells.’ Pärt also provides a paradox for its description: ‘[T]intinnabuli is the rule where the melody and the accompaniment… is one. One plus one, it is one – it is not two. This is the secret of this technique.’ This is clearly something of an anachronism in contemporary classical, as this clear, bright, sober style manifestly reminds the listener of church music, especially old church music, namely when Josquin was coming into prominence and the polyphonic order in the contrapuntal manner of the Renaissance was just establishing itself. Pärt’s style is even more stripped down, however, reflecting his thirst for ‘oneness.’ There is usually a dominant vocal line that is demarcated from its accompaniment, and yet moves with it, if not actually homophonically at least with the appearance of homophony. The polyphonic aspects serve to demonstrate its interior unity, to show that despite its manifold components it is irreversibly whole.

While its belonging to an ancient tradition is doubtless, there is also a chordal severity that indicates a more familiar part of its nature; the neatness and compositional orderliness betray an aspect that is actually very modern, given modern classical’s obsession with mathematical precision. This is no fault, mind, but simply how The Deer’s Cry remains ‘relevant’; instead of maintaining a purist’s dedication to the traditional style without straying from the grounds of what has worked (which we certainly do not mean pejoratively), Pärt instead unifies the modern and the ancient. Much like the technical elements of his music, Pärt fuses two disparate and sometimes competing civilizational ideas into an integral oneness, allowing the sweet, pure wisdom of the ancient world to breathe through the disciplined organization of the modern world.

This powerful unity between two juxtaposed ideas is melded into the music with stunning clarity. The higher melody floats above a deeper one, the male and female chants working symmetrically to evoke images of perfect harmony, which are then realized when they come together homophonically into the dominant refrain. The range of the female chorale, in terms of both technique and what it achieves visually, is particularly impressive, at times inspiring thoughts of mystical ecstasy, an order of angels, and a lonely maiden singing on the shore. The music’s quiet, lucid, tranquil atmosphere is the result of a loving agreement between a reverent and sincere male chorus, a gleaming and chaste female chorus, and the sparse accompaniment which nevertheless adds an immense depth; together they reflect the artist’s vision of an ordered whole composed of mutually harmonious parts, each seeming to be small and insignificant but in reality is immeasurably important. There is a philosophy of contrast deeply embedded in this music – yet it is contrast that ends in completion, divorce that ends in reunion.

While we have hardly spoken about the thematic content which ‘defines/refines the form’ and so is really more important, it is also a more private matter, depending to a great extent on the subjective condition of the soul listening to it. Also, as we’ve already said, Christian art will appeal differently to Christians than non-Christians, so there’s not much more to be said that will be universally applicable. Interestingly, Pärt himself said that he ‘could compare [his] music to white light which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.’ We might say on our part that a ‘Christian prism’ will unlock different colours from those of a ‘Buddhist prism,’ or even a ‘Catholic prism’ from an ‘Orthodox prism.’

Nevertheless, the beauty of this music shines through regardless of the listener’s religion, since beautiful forms first of all allure man in himself, prior to any spiritual addendums his life’s journey takes him through. In that sense any lover of music may fall in love with The Deer’s Cry, but for the Christian he will have the additional challenge of understanding the music in the context of his faith, which if successful will yield the rewards of a kind of spiritual insight unique to sacred art.

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In a profane age there are, as Frithjof Schuon said, more opportunities than ever for creating sublime and meaningful profane art. The nature of our time, when we’ve drifted so far away from a spiritual centre, dictates that art of a non-religious character will be at the forefront, not only because we materially are almost entirely secularized as a civilization, but because art reflects the age in which it is made – a holy age will make holy art while a degenerated age will make degenerated art. That said, art that reflects our very unholiness fully adheres to the principles of any traditional standard of art, which is a highly cogent argument for the raison d’etre of black metal. In this sense profane art has endless potential, because it can exemplify our intellectual and spiritual emptiness by mimetically recreating it in bold, dark, ugly and yet paradoxically beautiful forms.

All the same,  there is still always the need for sacred art, because man from the deepest roots of his being yearns for the sacred; disguising and repressing this need through immanent ideologies and other vampiric narcotics never truly fulfills it. Sacred art makes the beauty of the transcendent beautiful and intelligible to man, uplifting his intellect and his heart to contemplate the wonder beyond himself. It is beautiful in the most profound sense of the word, because not only is matter being arranged into intrinsically higher forms, but something soulful and divine is being incarnated into matter; it’s the peace of eternity draped in the garments of time. Wherever man may sincerely long for a glimpse of God, there he creates sacred art, there he participates in sacred art, and there he understands sacred art.

Arvo Pärt is one of too few genuinely interesting composers of sacred music today. Indeed, with the passing of Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci and the great John Tavener within a day of one another in November 2013, we might be tempted to say that Arvo Pärt is the last genuinely interesting composer of sacred music today.

Silence is the pause in me when I am near to God.~Arvo Pärt

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