Arvo Pärt was born in 1935 in Estonia. He enrolled at the Tallinn Conservatory in 1954. In addition to composition studies with Heino Eller, his curriculum included such lectures as “the science of atheism”. He taught himself the techniques of twelve-tone music, a style dismissed by the Soviet authorities as “bourgeois formalism”, from a textbook by Eimert and Krenek. From 1957 to 1967 he worked as a sound engineer on the national radio and composed his first soundtracks. He remains active as a film composer to this day and his pre-existing works are often used in cinema, for example Für Alina in Gus van Sant’s Gerry (2003) and Fratres in There will be blood (2007). It was particularly through his collaborations with directors after his graduation from the conservatory in 1963 that he gained recognition as a “professional composer”. His cantata for children’s choir, Meie Aed, won first prize in the 1962 All-Union Young Composer’s Competition, where his oratorio Maailma samm was also commended; however, his orchestral work Nekrolog has been criticized for its use of twelve-tone serialism. In the more liberal atmosphere of the 1960s, Pärt’s later experiments with serialism, particularly in his first two symphonies, enjoyed public performances. However, he soon moved away from the confines of the technique in favor of creating music collages. The scandal that ensued from a performance of his Credo in 1968 was much more the result of the composer’s declaration of religious faith than of his use of atonality.
A period of existential crisis and extreme creative insecurity followed, aggravated by health problems, during which Pärt established a lifestyle of religious asceticism and contemplative silence. During this time, he undertook a rigorous study of French and Franco-Flemish music of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. He joined the Russian Orthodox Church and married his second wife, Nora, in 1972. In 1976, his aesthetic changed dramatically. Besides marking a total break with the past, the emergence of Pärt’s new form of musical postmodernism, which he called tintinnabuli (“Bell Bells” in Latin), marked the beginning of a period of prodigious creativity, during which his most famous works: Für Alina, Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, Fratres, Sarah Was Ninety Years Old and Tabula Rasa. His new style was initially rejected in the West because of its naïve tonality, and in Eastern Europe because of its underlying mysticism. In 1980, he lived briefly in Austria before moving permanently to Berlin in 1981 on a German scholarship. Pärt’s German period will see the continued development of his mature style. The 1980s were largely devoted to the composition of sacred vocal works, mostly in Latin but also in German, English and Russian. His music has been particularly successful in the English-speaking world.