Saturday, May 10, 2008


We were sitting in a small restaurant beside the castle wall as the late evening sun played on the stones. Libby had a glass of what surely must have been a mediocre house wine and said that she had read where the quality of the wine is often judged to be high when it is consumed in a congenial atmosphere. It’s the ambiance, she suggested, that makes the wine.

After dinner we went to hear the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir present works from both the Medieval past as well as works by the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, performed in the cathedral within the Haapsalu castle. This castle, on the western coast of Estonia, has been attacked and destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again and again by the Swedes, the Danes, and the Russians. In 1715 Peter the Great was so afraid that the Estonians and Swedes would rebuild the fort that when he finally captured it, he decimated the fortress and destroyed the town. During the early 18th century only about 100 people lived in Haapsalu, but then the wide beach and the warm waters began to draw the rich and the powerful from St. Petersburg, and Haapsalu became a major tourist resort. Peter Tchaikovsky spent several summers there and even composed a little-known piece about Haapsalu.

Today the remains of the fortress are once again being restored, with the most impressive effort being the reconstruction of the bishoptic cathedral. In the days when the cathedral was first built, nobody could of course have predicted what the acoustics of the place would be like, but in this case, they were lucky. The acoustics are superb. You can hear a pin drop, and more importantly, you can hear the clarity and beauty of a human voice like nowhere else. It is within this place, within this context, that the works of Arvo Pärt must be heard to be appreciated. The quality of last night’s performance left us breathless.

But why Pärt, in this place? Some of you might not be familiar with his music. He has led an interesting life. Born in 1935, he was schooled in Estonia and then received most of his musical training at the Tallinn Conservatory. He started composing at a time when composers in the Soviet Union needed to tow the party line, but from the very start he was out of step with the party. As a part of his search for deeper meaning in life, he converted to the Russian Orthodox faith at a time when belonging to any church was frowned upon, and then began to write religious pieces that received international acclaim, all the while appeasing the political critics by occasionally knocking off a stock piece in praise of communism. Today his works are widely performed, and there is even an Arvo Pärt festival in Oregon every year. Most of his works are choral, usually a capella, although his “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” is a brilliant piece of orchestration for strings and bells that was used by Michael Moore in the film Farenheit 9/11 as the background music for the sequence showing the aftermath of the September 11th attack on New York City.

The musical technique Pärt developed, and for which he is most famous, is similar to the pealing of bells. When a bell is rung, the sound of the bell lingers for a time. If then other bells at different tones are rung, the effect is to sound a chord. Ringing bells in sequence tuned at C, E, G, for example, will give you a C major chord, but only as long as you still hear the C while the E and G are being rung. As soon as the C sound disappears, there is an opportunity to ring something else that will sound with the E and G which are still in the air, and so on. The technique requires that a note that has been sung or played continues to be in the consciousness of the listener.

And this is why the cathedral of the Haapsalu castle was the place to hear Pärt. It almost seemed, as Libby pointed out, that the walls themselves were singing. It would be difficult if not impossible to listen to the same music within any other hall and appreciate it as much as we did. It was the ambiance that made all the difference.



Rolling_Estonian said...

You're right! And it is impossible to perform anything else there too. Nine seconds natural reverb!! :)

pamela said...

I cannot tell you how jealous I am that you heard Requiem there. Is there a more evocative piece of music?