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In Spirit and in Truth: Rhythm and Time in the Music of Arvo Prt as related to Medieval Polyphony and Philosophy

PHILIP RICE ITURGICAL CHANT IN Medieval Europe progressed directly from the speaking (and later the intoning) of religious text.1 The variations in pitch and rhythm, thus, grew directly out of the way in which speech occurs, and more importantly, the way in which it is most easily perceived and understood. As more complex polyphony developed out of harmonized chant near the end of the middle ages, a set of rhythmic modes was developed as a method of keeping track of how the individual parts should line up rhythmically in the absence of a rhythmically mature notational system. More than 400 years later, Estonian composer, Arvo Prt, reevaluating his musical worldview, developed a new system of composing, which he called tintinnabuli, influenced and informed by the spirit of early music.2 His setting of texts bears a strong resemblance to early forms of polyphony, and in this paper I will make a case that the rhythmic structures found in his music are related to the early polyphonic schools not only in spirit, but also in structure and execution. Probably not incidentally, the path of Prts career is marked by recession from society followed by epiphany and intellectual and spiritual rebirtha pattern which typifies mystics of the medieval period (and any period, for that matter), a fact which is likely not coincidental to the reality that his music strongly resembles music of medieval mystics, especially in light of the fact that Prt claims to believe in the discovery of absolute truth.3 I will suggest that in mimicking the medieval attitude and approach in his compositions, Prt was (knowingly or unknowingly) led to the same inevitable set of rules, methods, and attitudes as medieval composers.

Jeremy Yudkin, Music in Medieval Europe (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1989), 43. Paul Hillier, Arvo Prt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 78. 3 Ibid, 65, Hillier quotes Prt, How thoroughly has the author-composer perceived, not his own present, but the totality of life, its joys, worries, and mysteries? [] Art has to deal with eternal questions, not just sorting out the issues of today.

Rhythm of Medieval Polyphony To begin, we must first have a clear understanding of the way in which the medieval polyphony of the Notre Dame School was structured, and how the methods employed served to make up entire compositions in multiple voices, much the same way Prts method of tintinnabuli (which will be discussed later) uses multiple voices to create specific kind of phrases (in time) and harmonies (in space). There were three distinct kinds of medieval polyphony, the first of which is called discant, and bears the strongest resemblance to tintinnabuli, being composed of a 1:1 ratio of notes (that is, it was strictly homophonic). The composition of discant was governed by rhythmic modes. As mentioned above, in the absence of a good system of notating complex rhythms, the modes were devised as a way to keep track of how two or three (or sometimes four) voices lined up rhythmically.4 The rhythmic modes are essentially a set of six possible rhythmic figures of two or three notes, and can be seen as an elemental typificaton of common rhythmic figures, just as the scalar modes were a way to indicate the most common pitch relationships in the absence of more elegant notational elements, such as accidentals or key signatures. The six rhythmic modes (which in no way correspond to the seven scalar modes) are clearly defined by Jeremy Yudkin in his book on medieval music:

Figure A: The rhythmic modes.5

How these modes interacted with the declamation of text is a more complex matter, and to understand this fully, an investigation of the other two chant forms is in order. In discant, the lower voice is always a traditional chant tune, and the second formperhaps the most well known, called organumalso uses a familiar tune as the bottom voice (or cantus firmus), but is instead sung
4 5

Yudkin, 366. Ibid., 367.

with very extended note-values, while a florid, melismatic line is sung above each note. The rhythm of organum is not governed by the rhythmic modes, but is instead determined by the dissonance or the consonance created by the interaction of the parts. The more dissonant the interval, the shorter the note,6 with the intensity of dissonance from consonant to dissonant being as follows: octave/unison fourth/fifth third/sixth second/seventh. Within this hierarchy, there are other qualifiers due to distance between notes; for example, a major seventh is considered less dissonant than a major second and so forth. The last type of polyphony is called copula and is a combination of organum and discant. The extended cantus firmus voice is present as in organum, but this time rhythm of the upper florid voice is governed by the rhythmic modes, rather than the degree of dissonance. All three of the aforementioned styles were combined in larger compositions with different sections using different techniques of polyphonic writing. How the rhythm of a free chant line is executed is a matter of some debate, though most historians agree that it should be done with respect for the text. A brief look at early motets of the late medieval period using rhythmic modes, however, reveals that stressed syllables usually get longer note values:

Figure B: O Maria, maris stellaVeritatem (Single-texted three-voice motet) Wolfenbttel, Herzog August-Bibl., Helm. 1206 (W2 ), fols. 125-257

It was also common practice for the penultimate note of the phrase to be elongated, regardless of their level of dissonance,8 a practice that was surely not coincidental to the fact that a vast majority of Latin words (in ecclesiastical pronunciation) have a stress on the penultimate syllable (Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotntem etc.).

6 7

Ibid., 368. David Fenwick Wilson, Music of the Middle Ages. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1990), 139. 8 Yudkin, 369.

Tintinnabuli To describe the entire process by which Arvo Prt reinvented his musical voice would be to recount the first half of Paul Hilliers book, aptly titled Arvo Prt. For the purposes of this essay, it will suffice to say that Prt, frustrated with the serialist and aleatoric style of his college years, stopped composing for nearly a decade (1968-76) in order to find a new way of composing music. Hillier describes this time as characterized by [seeking] to enter a different sense of time,9 and he explains that Prts focus was at least partly devoted to acquiring a higher understanding of the way to successfully set text to musicnot by reading about it or studying other composers work, but simply by doing ita completely organic approach:
Or he would quickly read a text, set it aside, and then immediately write music to mirror what he had just read. In this way he sought to steep himself in a new tradition, not artificially, but assimilating it bit by bit, pulling it gradually to the surface in such a way that it might become second nature.10

What emerged after eight years was a simple piece in two voices for piano called Fr Alina. The piece has no rhythmic indications other than short and long (black and white notes), and the entire piece is played over a drone which decays away in the bass register from a single attack at the beginning of the piece. The piece is the first example of tintinnabuli not for its rhythmic qualities, but because of its specific harmonic construction, that is, the right hand plays a chantlike melodic line, while the left hand always plays the nearest pitch in a B-minor triad; this is the essence of tintinnabuli, that the upper voice carries a melody, and the bottom voice plays (or sings) the notes in a given triad, usually whichever note is nearest to the melody note. As was the case in Fr Alina, much of Prts tintinnabuli compositions use only two rhythmic values, three on occasion. In cases where there are more values, the effect is still long, (medium), short due to the fact that the music never exhibits a pulse in such a way that it is easy to perceive that a note has sustained for four as opposed to three or two or five (etc.) beats. For example, in the Magnificat, we actually see five note values: dotted whole, whole, dotted half, half, and quarter, which might give one the idea that an overall quarter-note pulse would emerge in the listeners ear. From the example below, however, it is clear that this is not the case due to the fact that there is no discernable meter, or any


Hillier, 74. Ibid., 74.

other reference point from which to decide when there might be a release or an attack. The difference between a whole note, a dotted whole note, and a dotted half note is a little longer or a little shorter, and certainly not exactly one quarter note longer or shorter. In fact, in my experience performing Prts music in choirs, directors almost invariably simply cue each notedividing up the measures (which are really words) into units of 7/4, 6/4, 4/4, 10/4 etc. would be nearly unintelligible, and would certainly destroy the sense of declamation intended by a composer whose study involved the most organic text-setting possible.

Figure C: Prt, Magnificat 11

A survey of the Magnificat reveals that the entire rhythmic structure of the composition is completely governed by the text. We find that all barlines fall at the ends of words, and that every stressed syllable is given a long note value, and unstressed syllables are given short ones. Even the final cadence of the piece, where it would seem totally appropriate to give all three syllables of Dominum equal note-values, Prt gives mi (the unstressed syllable) a slightly shorter notea dotted whole rather than a double-whole. The parallels between Prts setting of text and the typical settings of discant and copula are immediately apparent: stressed syllables get longer note values. But what about organum and dissonances, and the rhythmic modes? To assess the values or intensity of dissonance in Prts music is essentially a null point, and this is one area in which his music departs in similarity from the construction of medieval polyphony (if there were nothing new about it, then why should we listen?). The elongation of consonant versus dissonant tones (such as in organum) cannot be fairly estimated because dissonance in Prts music arises naturally out of the interaction between arpeggiated accompaniment and melodic cantus. However, it is possible to assign rhythmic modes to sections of Prts music, particularly when dealing with metered text.

Arvo Prt, Magnificat. (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1989), 1.

It is uncommon to find metered poetry in liturgical Latin texts, so not surprisingly these are a rarity in both the music of Prt and in medieval polyphony. It is just this kind of text, however, that allows the clearest analasys of how the rhythmic modes interact with text (as in Fig. A). One example of an oftset liturgical text, which does follow a kind of poetic meter, is the Dies Irae, which is in trochaic tetrameter. To our fortune, Arvo Prt has indeed composed a setting of the Dies Irae, as part of his Miserere for soloists, choir, ensemble, and organ. In it, we find a unique setting of the tetrameter stresses, which alternates between first and second mode every other line:

Figure D: Prt, Miserere 12

The use of mode 1 is probably the most common method to set trochees in late medieval motets with metered text. The use of second mode is more uncommon, but exemplifies Prts remarkable ability to use ancient techniques to create engaging musical works in the modern day. In the upper voices, we also find a remarkable execution of augmentation, another rhythmic technique used in the composition of late medieval motets13 and which is strongly related to organum and copula in that it elongates the cantus note-values. Of course, here, we are dealing with something somewhat more complexthe soprano and alto lines are, in fact, the same pitches and rhythms as the tenor and bass lines, just half as fast. Later, the roles reverse, with the tenors and basses in augmentation, allowing the

Arvo Prt, Miserere, (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1989), 5. Roger Bullivant. Augmentation (ii). In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/53687 (accessed November 1, 2010).


two groups to end simultaneouslya perhaps painfully obvious, yet brilliantly executed device.14 The use of hierarchical rhythmic layering as we have just seen, is used frequently by Prt, perhaps most remarkably in Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem, more commonly referred to simply as Passio. In it, he sets up a system of his own rhythmic devices based on short, medium, and long, which is outlined by Hillier as follows:
1. In the last word of a phrase ending with a comma, the stressed syllable would be medium. 2. In the last word of a phrase ending with a colon or full stop, each syllable would be long. 3. In the first word of a new sentence (or phrase beginning after a colon), the stressed syllable would be medium. 4. In the last word in a phrase ending with a question mark, each syllable would be medium. 5. Otherwise all syllables are short.15

The system is made especially interesting by the fact that the different characters in the passion play operate on different temporal continuums (that is, different speeds), with the Evangelist singing at one speed, Pilate exactly twice as slow, and Christ three times as slow. The signification of the device is perhaps obviousChrist existing in a state of the most tranquility and timelessness, and the Evangelist existing strictly in real time. In this way, Prt taps into the not only the psycho-philosophical attitudes of the medieval period, but he also draws on the technique of lengthening those notes which are most important. Although the three temporal planes do not ever intersect (that is, the three characters do not sing simultaneously), Prts choice to assign Christ the longest values is perhaps indicative of Christs words being a cantus firmusthe most grounded, secure, and absolute, while the other parts are temporally more superfluous and ephemeralmuch the same way that shorter-valued organum ornamentations over a chant cantus firmus bear less importance than the original (and ostensibly more timeless) chant.

For our purposes, we are only examining those voices that are singing text. It should be noted, however, that with all the instrumental parts taken into consideration, we actually find a massive mensuration canon, with the same descending A minor pattern heard simultaneously in five tempi, each one progressively doubling the length of the notes so that the slowest is 16 times longer than the fastest. (Hillier, 155). 15 Hillier, 127-128.


Tranquility and Divine Simplicity In his book, The Musical Timespace, Erik Christensen describes several types of qualitative perceptions of time experienced in music, one of which he calls the time of being. Christensen describes this type of temporal experience with words like timelessness and eternity, and explains that it is similar to the way we perceive nature:
[]time of being is recalled in the experience of nature, the universe, and living beings. We know that a child and a plant grow and that a flower opens and turns and closes itself, but we do not perceive the minute changes constituting these processes.16

This idea of timelessness is neither new nor secular, and is, in fact, deeply rooted in medieval and Christian thought. Medieval Christian leaders, particularly St. Thomas Aquinas, believed in a kind of divine simplicity that characterizes God by his timeless nature, existing in a state of being, rather than within our temporal continuum. St. Augustine of Hippo, (who, admittedly, lived somewhat before what is commonly considered the medieval period, but whose philosophies helped shape the thinking of that period) famously suggested that God must exist outside time, in a state of perpetuity, unconfined by past, present, or future events. This type of thinking is very much in line with the perception of time in a spiritual sense during the medieval period, and is reflected in the monophonic chants and simple polyphonic styles that characterize the period, which are popularly typified by their meditative, almost static affect. The music of medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen (whose monastic lifestyle isnt so unlike Prts virtual monasticism) wrote music which bears a striking resemblance to Prts tintinnabuli, and is characterized by the same kind of effectual departure from normal time.17 This philosophy is an apt description of Prts musical style, and in fact agrees strikingly with the composers own thoughts on music philosophy and time, as quoted below from a masterclass taught by the composer:
Id say that I had a need toId call it neutralitya need to concentrate on each sound, so that every blade of grass would be as

Erik Christensen, The Musical Timespace (Aalborg: Aalborg University Press, 1996), 49. Anne H. King-Lenzmeier, Hildegard of Bingen: An Integrated Vision. (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001), xvi. The comparison between Hildegard and Prt is an interesting one, and one which perhaps deserves further consideration. Lenzmeier describes Hildegards life as being characterized by a mature simplicity [a] spiritual journey from the simple through the complex and returning to simplicity.


9 important as a flower. [] It could be like a break on the radio. Such signals sometimes sound as if they lasted an entire life.18

Much can be said about Prts approach to the philosophy of time, and the idea of tranquility, but the best evidence is found in the qualitative experience of actually listening to his music. The lack of definite meter in much of his music creates a temporal experience much more akin to meditation or a loss of the perception of time than the experiential and goal-based affect of more traditional western music. Prts desire to express the aesthetic of simplicity and tranquility in his music (and perhaps in all things) can be summed up in his own words, Tranquility is always more complete than music.19 Conclusions This paper has sought to focus on the structural similarities of Prts music and the music of an earlier, more mysterious time. The similarities between his music and the music of antiquity go much further than simply rhythmic considerations, and the nuances of his inner dialogue, his personal philosophy and worldview, and his compositional process must be reserved for a longer discussion. It is fascinating, however (titillating, almost), to think that the similarity between medieval music and his approach to rhythm could arise out of a natural progression from language, human intuition, and perhaps even greater universal (divine?) forces.


Arvo Prt: 24 Preludes and a Fugue. DVD. Directed by Dorian Supin (Juxtapositions,

2005). ArvoPart.info Arvo Prt wins Denmark's Sonning music prize. March, 2007, http://www.arvopart.info/pressarchive_files/20070301.html (accessed November 1, 2010).


FURTHER READING Bullivant, Roger. "Augmentation (ii)." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/ music/53687 (accessed November 2, 2010). Clarkson, G. Austin Elliott. On the Nature of Medieval Song: The Declamation of Plainchant and the Lyric Structure of the Fourteenth-Century Motet. (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1970). Hillier, Paul. Arvo Part. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Knapp, Janet. Musical Declamation and Poetic Rhythm in an Early Layer of Notre Dame Conductus. Journal of the American Musicological Society 32, no. 3 (1979): 383-407. King-Lenzmeier, Anne H. Hildegard of Bingen: An Integrated Vision. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001. Maddocks, Fiona. Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age. New York: Doubleday, 2001. McGlaughlin, Bill. Arvo Prt and the New Simplicity, Saint Paul Sunday October 11, 1998. http://saintpaulsunday.publicradio.org/features/9810_part/index.htm (accessed November 9, 2010). Nowacki, Edward. The Syntactical Analysis of Plainchant. International Musicological Society, Report of the Twelfth Congress, Berkeley 1977. Basel: Brenreiter, 1981. . Text Declamation as a Determinant of Melodic Form in the Old Roman Eighth-mode Tracts. Early Music History: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Music, 6 (January 1986):193. Yudkin, Jeremy. Music in Medieval Europe. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1989.


MUSICAL SCORES Part, Arvo. Berliner Messe. Vienna: Universal Edition, 1990, (rev. 2002). . Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem. Vienna: Universal Edition, 1992. . Magnificat. Vienna: Universal Edition, 1989. . Miserere. Vienna: Universal Edition, 1989. Wilson, David Fenwick. Music of the Middle Ages. New York: Schirmer Books, 1990.