People and Genres

33 Arvo Pärt

In this chapter you will

  • be introduced to the living composer whose works have been performed most often
  • consider the impact of being a composer in the context of the Soviet Union during the Communist era
  • hear musical settings of texts that are rarely ever set to music
  • learn about the intersection of religion with a very different response to modernity than the atonal one of Schoenberg and his school

Arvo Pärt has the honor of being the living composer whose works have been performed the most. The style that he developed is known as “tintinnabuli” because of its bell-like sounds. In the period in the composer’s life right before he developed that distinctive style, as he was working his way there, the Bible played a significant role. Composing in Estonia when it was part of the Soviet Union, he gave a work of his the vague title “Modus” but later revealed the name he had wished to give it all along, “Sarah Was 90 Years Old” (referring to the story in Genesis 17:17; 21:1–7).

Pärt has also set some texts that are less obvious choices to music—for instance, a genealogy from the Gospel of Luke (3:23–38) in his work “Which Was the Son Of…”[1]

Another example is Tribute to Caesar (setting Matthew 22:15–22). Pärt has also composed other works that set biblical texts to music that might be considered more obvious choices, including his Passio (St. John Passion), The Beatitudes (from Matthew 5), I Am the True Vine (John 15:1–14), The Woman with the Alabaster Box (Luke 7:36–50), and And One of the Pharisees (Luke 7:36).[2] He is sometimes compared to other composers of sacred music in our time, such as John Tavener, Henryk Górecki, Alan Hovhaness, and many more who are often labeled “holy minimalists” or “sacred minimalists,” labels that these composers do not consider helpful. Minimalism is a reaction against atonality that sought a return to the roots of traditional music, exploring the simplicity of the tonal idiom, usually with very sparse instrumentation and much repetition.

Theologian Rob Saler of Christian Theological Seminary has this to say about the role of the Bible in Pärt’s music: “As scholars such as Peter Bouteneff and others have shown, in most of Arvo Pärt’s mature compositions, he is either directly setting a sacred text to music or is using the cadence of that text as chanted in liturgical settings to guide his compositional choices. In a conversation that I once had with the composer, he shared with me that he seeks to inhabit the texts that he sets to music before, during, and even after the act of composition itself—in a way, he invites listeners to inhabit the texts sonically even as, in so doing, the texts start to permeate the lives of listeners.”[3]

For Further Reading

Hillier, Paul. Arvo Pärt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Shenton, Andrew. “Magnificat: Arvo Pärt the Quiet Evangelist.” In Exploring Christian Song, edited by M. Jennifer Bloxam and Andrew Shenton, 155–70. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2017.


  1. Performance by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by Paul Hillier and licensed to YouTube by Harmonia Mundi.
  2. His Passio is discussed in chapter 26 along with other Passions.
  3. Dr. Rob Saler, personal correspondence.


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The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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