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About this Piece

Composed: 1989; 1992
Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, timpani, percussion (tambourine, tam-tam, triangle, tubular chimes), electric guitar, electric bass guitar, organ, mixed chorus, and solo quintet

First LA Phil performances

For most of the 1960s, Pärt composed in a serial idiom, including his Symphony No. 1, “Polyphonic.” A growing interest in Bach and the use of collage, apparent in his Symphony No. 2, began to subvert the serialism, and after the composition of Credo in 1968 – officially condemned for its explicit religious statement – Pärt devoted himself to the study of plainsong and early music, writing little else besides counterpoint exercises.

By the mid-’70s he arrived at a new style. “Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I called it tintinnabulation.”

Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, performed here next week, is a well-known orchestral example of the new style. Much of his music since 1980 has been for voices, however. Miserere was commissioned by the Summer Festival in Rouen in 1989, and dedicated to Paul Hillier and the Hilliard Ensemble.

The Miserere text is Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me,” King David’s anguished plea for forgiveness after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his adultery with Bathsheba (and arranging the death of her husband). Pärt begins with a chant-like minor-mode intonation on E for tenor soloist and clarinets, full of silent gaps, each word an exhalation.

He adds all of the soloists over a sustained timpani roll, in a tonal and textual set-up for the dramatic interpolation of the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), the 13th-century hymn familiar from requiem masses. This is a vast outpouring in A minor for full ensemble and chorus, overlapping canonic scales descending at different speeds (Pärt employs a similar device in his Cantus). Pärt sets the first seven verses of the hymn, ending with a fading repeat of the first verse, with the parts of the canon swapped.

Pärt returns to the Miserere text and the soloists and their gapped lines, now in a remote tonal area with four flats. He explores each verse of the text with distinctive combinations of voices and instruments, as sensitive to individual words as to expressive unities. After “Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,” for example, the organ initiates an instrumental dance, from which the prayer moves forward into affirmations, still broken by silences but ardent and even confident.

The last three verses become softer, humbler, more searching, until the solo bass finds a root on E, which the organ confirms with a soft E-minor chord. Pärt returns to the Dies Irae with another surprise: “Rex tremendae majestatis” (King of Tremendous Majesty, the eighth verse) set not with flaring power, but as a benediction reinforcing the essential prayer for mercy. The chorus joins the soprano and alto soloists in new canons, ascending against the organ’s reminder of the Day of Wrath. The prayer rises and evaporates, leaving just that E-minor chord in the organ, like the hum of the world.

— John Henken