Magazine article The Spectator

Hints of the Numinous

Magazine article The Spectator

Hints of the Numinous

Article excerpt

There is something about the music of Arvo Part which does not sit well with Italian fascist architecture. Perhaps I am oversensitive, but vast stone lions and super-size friezes depicting epic battles conflict with Holy Minimalism in its most refined flights. Certainly Part's music has its own grandeur and impressive spaciousness, but in the end it is a miniature artform, which cannot be said of much to do with Mussolini, certainly not of the Aula Magna in La Sapienza University of Rome.

It is not that I am squeamish. We have performed settings of the Requiem in school gymnasiums on rural American campuses;

we have sung Byrd's Four-part Mass under a tree in a botanical garden in Fez, Morocco.

For that matter, we regularly sing settings of the Lamentations at Christmas-time and the Allegri Miserere in programmes optimistically entitled 'Music for the Blessed Virgin', which might not sell so well without it. But there was something disturbing about marrying Part with those stone lions. It was as if Mussolini was engaged in a very last-ditch stand at respectability.

There is little more respectable than Part's music at the moment. On the occasion of the lions we sang his Nunc dimittis for the first time. We have repeatedly sung his Magnificat, which was not composed to go with the Nunc, evensong-style, but was written quite a few years earlier and which has established itself as a masterpiece of the genre. We also sang his Sieben MagnificatAntiphonen. This is pretty well the sum total of my knowledge of Part, whose music of course reminds me of that of John Tavener, much though I am told they both dislike the comparison. Yet they both have the same strength in simplicity, the same hint of the numinous through an artful combination of silence, ritualistic repetition and almostsaccharine gestures of harmony. And however powerful the resulting sounds may be, it is in the end pure music. Although I get the impression that they are both religious men and the words matter to them, I do not get the impression from what they write that they are committedly adherent to any particular creed. Their music, while seeming to be so deeply rooted, comes over as being merely their own message. As Leon Wieseltier once pointed out, this music can seem wide but not very deep.

I find myself on guard at a style which so overwhelms me at the first hearing that I think I shall be in thrall to it for ever, as happened with the music of Tallis, but which slowly retreats. …

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