Arvo Pärt’s way as a composer began writing music for children. Five Children’s Songs for children’s choir and piano (1956–1960), Four Easy Dances for piano (1956–1959), and the cantata Our Garden for children’s choir and symphony orchestra (1959) are only few of them. He composed songs, piano pieces, and music for radio programmes, plays, and animated films for altogether nearly twenty years, first published pieces dating from 1956. The fact itself is not widely known and may even come as a surprise for the listeners who are familiar only to so-called serious music by Pärt, either from early modernist period in 1960s or tintinnabuli music from 1976 on. But writing for children can also be something serious, and has been something very important for Pärt himself.
“I went to nursery school every day until the end of secondary school!” Arvo Pärt says and pauses, staring slyly at his listener. Only after a few lengthy seconds more does he add: “My mother worked at a nursery school in Rakvere, and I always went to visit her after my lessons.”
There, the future composer often sat at the piano and played or improvised for his little friends. Children’s stories and songs as well as their world of make-believe was a natural, everyday environment for Pärt. Even now, many decades later, he knows by heart a large number of nursery rhymes and silly ditties, and can pull them out of his sleeve at just the right moment.
Pärt’s first job was also connected to children and youth. In the second half of the 1950s, as a student at the Tallinn School of Music and later the Tallinn Conservatory, he earned pocket money by accompanying on piano the theatre club of the Tallinn Palace of the Pioneers. Most of this music came about by way of direct improvisation. The miniatures, which were hastily scribbled out at practices and only later given their more polished forms, possess the spontaneous, playful spirit amid which they were born. Among those pieces are Arvo Pärt’s earliest known works – composed more than half a century ago over the period 1956–1960, their exact dates unknown. Songs like Frogs, The Doll Has No Name, Ladybird’s Song and especially I Am Already Big (the unofficial anthem of all the preschool children) are the true classics in Estonian children’s repertoire.
By the early 1960s, Arvo Pärt had become a recognised composer whose works (Necrology, his first symphony, Perpetuum mobile, and others) were played regularly in concert halls and on the radio. In addition to symphonic and other concert music, he actively composed film soundtracks during the sixties and the seventies, which included the music for nearly twenty puppet and animated films (The Little Motor-Scooter, Operator Kõps and Atom-Boy, to mention a few).
In the 1960s, Pärt was also a musical designer at the Estonian State Puppet Theatre, writing music for altogether seven productions. The loved piano piece, Mommy’s Kiss comes from a well-known Elar Kuus' children’s play of the same name, which tells the story of a splendid bunny family. Mommy’s kiss is a powerful secret weapon for the bunny children – it makes them braver and protects them from all kinds of dangers. Arvo Pärt has said that this symbol contains a deeper meaning:
“When a child leaves home in the morning, he or she always gets a mother’s kiss or a hug for the road. But actually, it is for their entire life – like a mother’s blessing.”
Mommy’s Kiss for piano as well as all the songs on the album Songs from Childhood are dedicated to Arvo Pärt’s mother.