22 March 2008

The Harrowing of Hell: Reflection 2

Duccio: the Harrowing of Hell

Patrick Comerford

Reflection 2: De Profundis by Arvo Pärt

Psalm 130, traditionally known as the De Profundis, was long associated with funerals and the prayers for the faithful departed. In deep sorrow, the psalmist cries to God (verses 1-2), asking for mercy (verses 3-4). The psalmist’s trust (verses 5-6) becomes a model for the people (7-8).

The depths from which he cries in verse 1 is Sheol, the place of the dead, or a metaphor for total misery; the depths of the sea are an image of the realm of death. In verse 3, the use of the phrase “our sins” is a shift from the singular/personal to the plural/communal, which occurs again in the final two verses. In verse 4, the experience of God’s mercy leads to a greater sense of God.

A long letter by Oscar Wilde while he was in prison bears the title De Profundis, as do poems by Baudelaire, Christina Rossetti, C.S Lewis, Dorothy Parker and the Spanish poet Federice García Lorca. The De Profundis has been set to music by many composers, including Handel, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Purcell, Schoenberg, Bach (as part of the Cantata BWV 131), Gabrieli and John Rutter as part of his Requiem.

Our second piece of music this evening is Arvo Pärt’s De Profundis, a very rich and rewarding composition, with its inter-action between the flickering organ, the tenor and bass voices, the quiet bass drum strokes and the chimes of a singular tubular bell.

Arvo Pärt, who was born 1935, is an Estonian composer who has become very popular in his own lifetime. Pärt’s musical education began at the age of seven. By his early teens, he was writing his own compositions. His early influences included Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Bartók and Schoenberg. When his early works were banned under Soviet rule, Pärt started to study 14th-16th century choral music. Later, he immersed himself in early music, looking at the roots of western music and studying plainsong, Gregorian chant, and polyphony. During this period, his new compositions included Fratres, Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten, and Tabula Rasa.

In 1980, he was forced to leave Estonia with his wife and their two sons. They first lived in Vienna, where he finished his De Profundis and became an Austrian citizen. They then moved to Berlin, where he still lives. Pärt’s music came to attention in the West through the efforts of Manfred Eicher, who started to record several of Pärt’s compositions in 1984.

Pärt’s later works include settings for sacred texts, drawing inspiration from Saint John’s Passion, the Te Deum, and the Litany. His choral works from this period include his Magnificat and The Beatitudes.

This year, he was honoured as the featured composer of the RTÉ Living Music Festival in Dublin. The Louth Contemporary Music Society commissioned him to write a new choral setting for Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, called The Deer’s Cry, which had its debut in Drogheda and Dundalk in February.

He has reached a more popular audience through scores for over 50 movies, including Promised Land and part of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.

Pärt describes his music as tintinnabuli – like the ringing of bells. The music is characterised by simple harmonies, often single unadorned notes, or triad chords. He says his music is like light going through a prism: the music may have a slightly different meaning for each listener, and so it creates a spectrum of musical experience, similar to the rainbow of light.

It is said “his music fulfils a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.” But there is a warning: with Pärt, you have to be patient. At first, his work sounds very austere, almost as if it has a respect for silence. Yet it is music that lingers in the memory for a long time. It has been summed up as “mystical minimalism,” or “spiritual minimalism.”

This evening, we listen to his De Profundis, which was first sketched in 1977, but only completed three years later in 1980 after Pärt moved to Vienna.

This is the second of five reflections on the Harrowing of Hell delivered on Easter Saturday, 22 March 2008, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Dublin. Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

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