Sunday, October 7, 2012

"Fratres" by Arvo Pärt

Last night, I attended a concert at the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco and heard a piece of music that is new to me. The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt wrote "Fratres" in 1977. Many different arrangements of the piece exist; I heard a version for strings and percussion. And was completely overwhelmed.

"Fratres" is simple, starts softly, builds in intensity (the strings get louder and louder, the percussion gets louder) and then fades away again. But the repetition of the little phrase the strings play is so heartbreaking; there is something about the piece that speaks to me of a certain kind of tension between melancholy and hopefulness. It is bittersweet but that is not quite the right word. I want a word that means feeling sadness but being content in the sadness, as though contemplating life itself, contemplating the suffering, brings a profound realization of the preciousness of life, of its fleetingness, its beauty. I don't think there is a word in English that captures that. I wonder if there is a language that can say all that in one word. (UPDATE: I think I may have found the language and word. In Japanese, the word yugen subtly means “a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe… and the sad beauty of human suffering”... I think that could be it!)

There is a holiness to the piece, and I certainly do not mean that in a religious way. I mean holy in the sense of "a cosmic, everlasting, transcendent truth." It speaks to an enigma...but "speak" is not the right word either. "Fratres" is all about the unspoken... things that cannot be uttered. Things that simply are, with no mind to formulate a word, with no mouth make a sentence... it is beyond corporeal.

At about 3/4 of the way through, I started to cry. And after the piece, I sat stunned and teary through the set up for the next piece, a Bartok piano concerto... I could not stop crying.

"I could compare my music to white light which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener."
--Arvo Pärt

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