Arvo Pärt (Music and Religion)

Holy basso profundo!! On the ride up to Syracuse today, I listened to Pärt’s Symphony  #4 (2008) and Kanon pokajanen (Canon of Repentance to Our Lord Jesus Christ) (1997). The rolling, searing strings, graceful bells matched the upstate countryside.

Full of sympathy, pity, and pathos, not stoic, it stands up to militant critical theory quite well. The CD notes refer to this and other works by Pärt as a “musical setting” based on a text. The subtitle to the symphony is “Los Angeles,” which threw me for a loop.

Death, judgment, self-abnegation. You can find the translation of the kanon here. Most likely you won’t like it, not in English at least. It always sounds better in Church Slavonic.

Did the ride and rainy day have to be so searing and sad? Nietzsche was right about Christian slave morality. Did I need to bring high Church style into the world? Then again, why not? Is it sometime a choice, what to listen to? I find it best not to be too judgmental.

The night before my commute, I pull a more or less random selection of CDs off the shelf. About the relation between Symphony #4 and Kanon pokajanen, Pärt explains how he “wanted to give the words an opportunity to choose their own sound.” What can I say? I’m a sucker for late Heidegger.

Arvo Pärt is a blue-chip composer in contemporary “classical” music. What might interest those of you who are more incredulous about this kind of stuff is the abiding place of religion, “sprituality,” and the sublime in elite cultural practice. Like it or not, I don’t see it going away.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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