Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten by Arvo Part

Dharmacari Jayarava

This essay is my own work. I'm happy for you to use it as long as I am acknowledged as the author (just as I have acknowledged my sources). Rather than copy it onto you website, please link to me - I'll consider linking back to you.

Arvo Part (pronounced "pairt") was born in Estonia in 1935. Although at that time Estonia was a nascent independent republic, the Soviet Union took control of it in 1940, and stayed except for a brief period under the Nazis, for the next 54 years. Part's musical education began at age 7, and by 14 or 15 he was writing his own compositions. While studying composition at the Tallinn Conservatory it was said of him that: "he just seemed to shake his sleeves and notes would fall out". [1] There were very few influences from outside the Soviet Union at this time, just a few illegal tapes and scores.

Arvo Part's oeuvre is generally divided into two periods, and he is best known for his more recent works. The early works range from rather severe neo-classical styles influences by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Bartók. He then began to compose using Schoenberg's 12 tone serial method, but this not only earned the ire of the Soviet establishment, but also proved to be a creative dead end. Part's biographer, Hillier, says:

"… he had reached a position of complete despair in which the composition of music appeared to be the most futile of gestures, and he lacked the musical faith and will-power to write even a single note". [2]

This may be an overstatement however since the transitional third symphony was composed during this time. However it is clear that Arvo Part experienced a deep crisis. His response to this impasse was to immerse himself in early music, to go in effect back to the very roots of western music. He studied plainsong, Gregorian chant, and the emergence of polyphony in the Renaissance. At the same time he began to explore religion and joined the Russian Orthodox Church, perhaps indicating that the crisis was spiritual in nature, rather than simply musical.

The music that began to emerge after this period was radically different. Arvo Part describes it as "tintinnabular": as like the ringing of bells. The music is characterised by simple harmonies, often single unadorned notes, or triad chords which form the basis of western harmony. These sound like ringing bells, hence the name. The Tintinnabuli are rhythmically simple, and do not change tempo. The influence of early music is clear. Another characteristic of Part's later works is that they are frequently settings for sacred texts, although he mostly chooses Latin texts rather than Estonia, or the Slavonic used in Orthodox liturgy. Part is unusual for a modern composer in that he is very popular in his own lifetime.

Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten emerged in 1977 which is fairly early in the development of the tintinnabular style, but has most of the recognisable features. It was written, as may be guessed, in response to the death of the British composer Benjamin Britten in 1976. This was prior to his eventual emigration to Austria in 1980, with the Soviet Union still controlling and dictating what was acceptable. It would have been difficult for Part to find recordings or scores for Britten's music which he described as having "unusual purity". [3] With the death of Britten, Part's hopes of a meeting with this kindred spirit were dashed.

Which brings us to Cantus itself. Describing music in words seems like a quixotic adventure at best, and I can only hope that the reader will also be a listener: that they will locate a recording of the work [4], or be fortunate enough to attend a performance of it, and will read these words with the music echoing in their minds.

Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten begins with three beats of silence. A significant fact which I will return to shortly. Then very very softly (pianississimo), and very slowly a bell is struck. Three times it rings out and dies away, and it continues to be rung almost all the way throughout the piece, mostly in groups of three, gradually getting louder. The other instruments, 1st and 2nd violins, viola, cello, and double bass enter one at a time. They are each playing the same melody - a simple descending A minor scale - but each is playing it progressively slower in the ratio 1:2:4:8:16, so that the double basses are playing at 1/16 of the speed of the 1st violins. This is an old form called a mensuration canon, which was popular in Renaissance music. The first violins start at the upper limit of their range, playing the first note, then repeatedly descending through the A minor scale, adding a note each time. The melody seems, at first tentatively, and them more confidently to probe downwards into the lower registers. Each instrument begins softly, but by stages increases until at the end they are all playing very very loud (fortississimo!). Each voice except the violas is split into two (and at times four) parts with one playing the A minor scale, and the other providing a sort of anchor by playing only notes from an A minor chord. This produces a sort of spiralling effect, with pulses of tension and release.

Each voice, then, is questing downwards, but it is not a blind search. Each is seeking a particular note which forms part of an A minor chord. The violins, having started first, are the first to reach their note, and having got there they simply play that note continuously until the end. As the other instruments find their pitch the effect is like the finishing of a jigsaw puzzle. At about the same time as the violas find their note, the bell lapses into silence. There is a definite, strong sense of completion when the double basses find the low A that completes the final chord, resolving the last dissonance. And so we reach a point where each of 6 voices (the cellos are still paired) playing at full volume, an A minor chord at a very low pitch, which continues for 30 beats. Then suddenly on the first beat of the last bar beat the bell is struck very softly, too low to be heard above the roar of the strings. [5] Simultaneously the strings stop, so that we hear the bell softly ringing and dying away into silence once more.

Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, as I said, begins and ends with silence. You might say that all music does this, but in Cantus it is in the score, it is programmed into the music and is integral to the structure of it. [6] I suggest that this silence, is like the blue sky at the beginning of a Buddhist visualisation practice. It is the pregnant void of shunyata. Three beats of silence also begin the 1st violin part. This becomes 6 beats for the 2nd violins, 12 for the violas, 24 for the cellos, and 48 for the double basses. In other words although we hear the instruments joining in progressively, they actually begin at the same moment! Silence in music is a great source of creative tension. For the performer it is a koan - how does one 'perform' silence?

The whole piece is built around the A natural minor scale, also known as the Aeolian Mode. Both the scale and the fundamental chord built from its notes have a characteristic melancholy to them. Music written in a minor key is almost inevitably sombre, sad, or even dark. If anything in music symbolises the bitter-sweetness of human existence, it is the minor chord. There is in it a sense of longing and of existential dissatisfaction. But this is not just any minor key, it is "A" minor which is the model for all minor scales and has ancient associations going back to the ancient Greeks, to Pythagoras and his music of the spheres. By choosing A minor Part is declaring his connection with archetypal musical modes which form the foundations of modern harmony.

As I mentioned each voice, each instrumental part, is twofold. This separation into two voices, one which sticks to the notes from the A minor triad, and the other which is free to wander over other pitches, has a definite intended symbolism. The latter "always signifies the subjective world, the daily egoistic life of sin and suffering, [the former] meanwhile, is the objective realm of forgiveness". [7] Part goes further:

"This can be likened to the eternal dualisms of body and spirit, earth and heaven; but the two voices are in reality one voice, a twofold single entity. This can be neatly and enigmatically represented by the following equation:

1 + 1 = 1       [8]

There are resonances here with Buddhist doctrines about the duality between samsara and nirvana, existence and non-existence, the conditioned and unconditioned, which are also not two.

Arvo Part's biographer suggests that "how we live depends on our relationship with death: how we make music depends on our relationship to silence". [9] It is death that sparks this piece. The characteristic Buddhist response to death is to search for the deathless. In the story of the four sights the Buddha-to-be goes forth into homelessness, into the unknown, in order to solve the problems of old age, sickness and death. In listening to Cantus, especially for the first time, we go into the unknown. The bell heralds death, it is the funeral bell and the initial response is instability. The first few bars seem to teeter on the edge of chaos, and we may be asking ourselves: "is this going to be one of those discordant, morbid, 'modern' works?". But soon things settle into a more recognisable pattern, and the entry of the lower voiced, slower moving instruments provides much needed stability. The quest has begun, each voice begins searching downwards, repeatedly pushing lower and lower, seeking something. The result is a sonorous tapestry, swirling with colour and unexpected conjunctions of tension and relaxation, which result not from the whim of the composer, but come from the structure of the canon itself.

And then one by one each voice finds the pitch it has been seeking, sustains it until the end, which is more than 250 beats in the case of the 1st violins. The spiritual life is like this. We search around looking for answers to the big questions. Then when we find the Dharma, we don't get answers, but we get practices which can take us to a place where the questions are transcended. Once we have the practices it's just a matter of sawing away until we reach the goal. We do this on an ever deeper level until at last the light of Bodhi dawns, and we are transformed in the deepest level of our being. As the double basses finally hit their note there is a palpable sense of relief, of relaxation combined with energy.

And then suddenly the music stops - or almost. In this moment there is a sense of spiritual death. As Bodhi dawns we die to our old self, our old self-centeredness. But with spiritual death there is spiritual renewal, and even though we don't hear the striking of the bell, it is struck, and rings on after the reverberations of the strings have died away. This last bell is the opening of the door to the deathless, or perhaps more prosaically it is the opening of the imagination to the possibility of the deathless. At this point there is little more to be said, since Nirvana is ineffable. And so we return to silence, once again written into the score. But this is not the silence of the absence of sound. It is the silence that is sound, and the sound is silence.

Arvo Part's music is recognisably religious since so many of his works are settings of religious texts. In the case of Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten it is not just religious, it is spiritual. Cantus bares similarities to Buddhist visualisation practices, and since it is a re-enactment of the spiritual path it could also said to be puja. Cantus is not only profoundly beautiful, it is beautifully profound. It uses very simple elements to create a rich and complex whole, and seems to entirely fulfil Sangharakshita's criteria that art should communicate a sense of values that can transform our lives. [10]



Hillier, P. Arvo Part. (Oxford : University Press, 1997). p27.


ibid. p.64.


ibid. p.103.


I recommend the version of Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten on the Naxos CD Fratres. Hungarian State Opera Orchestra. Naxos 8.553750


In at least one recording the striking of the bell is heard, but after examining the score I believe the composer did not intend it to be heard.


Part, A. Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten für streichorchestra und enie glocke. [musical score] (Wien, Philhamonia : 1980). PH555.


Hillier. p.96.


ibid. p.96.


ibid p.1


Sangharakshita. The Religion of art. (Glasgow : Windhorse, 1987). P.84-85