Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
Length: c. 6 minutes
Orchestration: bell and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 11, 2002, Paavo Järvi conducting
There wasn’t any human relationship or seemingly a musical one between the Estonian and Benjamin Britten. But Pärt was moved to write a work in memory of the British composer, describing the inception of the piece. “Why should the date of Benjamin Britten’s death [December 4, 1976] touch such a chord in me? Evidently it was only in that moment that I matured enough to realize the magnitude of such a loss. Inexplicable feelings of duty, or even more than that, arose in me – I had just discovered Britten for myself. Not a very long time before his death, I recalled my impression of his music’s rare purity – a purity comparable with the impressions I had derived from ballades of Guillaume de Machaut. Apart from that, I had long desired to meet Britten face-to-face, but it was not to be.”
The three very quiet, widely spaced chimings of a lone bell that open the Cantus initiate music that casts a mesmerizing spell, enveloping one in its transcendental aura for the duration of the piece. When the strings enter, they begin very softly and increase in intensity little by little, reaching to a sustained fortissimo level as they play throughout on variants of a descending scale of A minor. The scales, permeated by the bell’s seemingly random appearances, overlap each other at different speeds, the whole wash of sound creating an archaic, churchly atmosphere. The repetitiousness of the music suggests minimalism, but the elevated nature of the Cantus, call it spirituality, sets it apart from any kind of formulaic method.
— Orrin Howard