chapter  1
20 Pages

For whom the bells toll: Arvo Pärt’s Passio, metamodernism and the appealing promise of tintinnabulation


Around 1976, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt developed a new compositional process reminiscent in some ways of sounding bells; hence it’s appellation ‘tintinnabulation’. The technique is seemingly simple, comprising just two musical lines: one moves in largely stepwise motion, the other utilizes the notes of a principal triad. In this chapter, I explore how Pärt uses this new technique in Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem, his innovative setting of the St John Passion, completed in 1982. I note that far from being simple, tintinnabulation is a process that affords a large and subtle range of consonance and dissonance, and that Pärt has used the technique to extraordinary effect in a wide range of compositions, both sacred and secular. In the first section of the chapter, musical settings of the Passion are contextualized within a broad framework that examines the historical continuum since 1965, noting some of the theological interpretations expounded in different examples. In the second part, tintinnabulation in Pärt’s Passio is described, noting distinguishing features of the music and some of the compositional procedures Pärt employs. In the third part, I situate tintinnabulation in the narrative of metamodernism (a term that has become a viable substitute for the more clumsy ‘post-postmodernism’). My own framework is based on the definitions of this term by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, who situate metamodernism ‘epistemologically with (post) modernism, ontologically between (post) modernism, and historically beyond (post) modernism’.1 Finally, I propose three ways in which the discourse for Pärt and his music should be reoriented in a way that coincides with notions of the metamodern, since it more accurately describes the essence of the man and his music.