I’m not a professional music critic. I don’t have any credentials, no particular knowledge of the methods and practices of musicians, and little more than a devoted layman’s familiarity with schools of music. However, I do listen to a fairly broad range of eclectic musical selections, and there is precisely one modern Classical-styled composer who I would peg as a certain shoe-in for greatness that will last for generations.
That composer is Arvo Pärt.
Now, this may be a controversial opinion, or a fairly well-accepted one. I am far from an expert in the field of music, but I think it validates my claims somewhat that Pärt is someone who everyone I’ve talked to who “knows” modern Classical music seems to have heard of, yet he is also obscure among the general population: he’s not Bach or Beethoven or Chopin. Pärt’s work is not eminently listenable for particular key melodies or measures, because of its minimalism and the fact that much of its nature is as sacred music performed by choirs.
But Pärt’s music is breathtaking and expansive. His tintannabulli style, even to a layman, is immediately familiar, and has worked its way into the cinema and provides echoing inspirations to a broad range of artists. Paired with the power of the choir, the organ, and sacred songs, it can soar to the loftiest heavens or express the darkest depths of mourning.
“Spiegel im Spiegel” is one of the most commonly performed works by Pärt, and while its violin and piano duo lack many of the more illustrious qualities of his sacred music they retain an incredible depth, a style that maintains both classical and modern sensibilities, fostering quiet contemplation in listeners of all stripes.
However, my go-to piece for Pärt (when simply choosing a piece at random does not suffice) is his Magnificat, and his Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen in particular. I have a bit of a soft spot for sacred music, it is true, and particularly for the simplicity of plainsong and chant. To see them re-imagined by such a modern master is a refreshing and pleasing breath of fresh air among other modern composers, who, while they have their merits, often forget the fundamentals in favor of exploration.
It strikes me that Pärt has found through a return to earlier times a path to a goal that many modern composers, especially in the minimalist field, where great composers like Glass are found occasionally to flounder on their own ambition.