Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (Arvo Pärt 1977) [5:41]

To me, there isn't any doubt that this is the work of someone possessed by genius. Not the throwaway expression of genius that is accorded to everyone who is half-decent at what he or she does, but the real thing; the genius that takes hold of you and doesn't let go, no matter how hard you try. As a pronouncement of that phenomenon, this tune is hard to beat.

Pärt wrote this outstanding work - probably his most famous - in 1977, the year after Benjamin Britten died, as an expression of kinship with a fellow composer he felt was on the same map he was trying to follow. Pärt has spoken of the 'unusual purity' of Britten's work, and within this musical in memoriam he aspired to create something as unblemished as the essence he heard within the other's compositions. The two never met. Knowing a little about both, I wonder how they would have got on together.

This composition begins and ends with silence - scored silence. That silence is broken by the sound of a single brass bell in A, struck three times, following which the sound of a tight and quiet cluster of violins begins a steady descent down the scale of A minor, shortly followed by another cluster of second violins doing the same, only at a slower pace. Violas join in a short while later, playing the same decent in a different octave and at a differing rate. Cellos follow, and then - some distance into the music - contrabass. As each cycle of descent ends the strings reach further down the scale, repeating an increasing cycle of contours, each playing at different points of the scale, at differing octaves, in differing rhythmic cadences, at differing volumes. As the strings drop and rise again to start their fall again so the strength of the notes is increased, until you realise that each group of strings is essentially playing the same thing, but at entirely different times - the first violins are playing sixteen times faster than the contrabasses.

The strings pick up volume throughout until - at bar 65 - all strike fff simultaneously, and the first violins hit middle C, and they stay there. The second violins wait until bar 76 to hit a lower A and they too stay there, waiting for the violas, the cellos and the contrabasses to run down the scale to meet the components of a very loud and broadly phrased A minor, all hanging at that point for five bars until they suddenly stop. I might be picking this up all wrong, but the poignancy within this implication is that in the mythical great hereafter time not only stands still, but also moves at differing rates around us depending on our own vantage. The effect is stunning. The final silence as the strings break off is shocking - and almost always unexpected, unless you are counting bars - but the last effect Pärt reserves for us is the most magical of all. As the strings halt, the brass bell - which has been striking throughout, also climbing in volume throughout - can just be heard, having been struck pianissimo at that very moment, and through the silence the bell decays into the echoed silence, the most prominent note of which is its clearest overtone: a note of C#. The enormous A minor chord has ended abruptly, but the silence resolves it via a Picardy Third to A major. Minor to major. Melancholy to joy. Death to life.

Arvo Pärt made the impossible happen. He makes silence actually speak.

Crafting this tune for a Mellotron is difficult enough, but what is clearly a major hurdle is the fact that the various strings have to hold down a note for a protracted period, the first violins doing so for more than 250 beats. On an instrument that plays nothing for longer than eight seconds that poses a substantial issue. Or so you'd think. To get around this I managed to hold down that large chord on the strings for as long as the instrument would allow and let it run off, then went back to the recorded sound, isolated that final chord and stretched it out as far as it was required using an impresive program named Extreme Sound Stretch. The program will expand almost anything out without much (if any) distortion. It even has a 'hyperstretch' function that threatens to expand a sound source out to a matter of years, if you are so inclined. Brian Eno, take note.

Instrumentation: Mellotron Mk V and M400 playing

also Brass bell samples

FLAC version here.

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