Concert recording of Miserere at Nargenfestival, St. John’s Church, Tallinn, 9.09.2015. Courtesy of Estonian Public Broadcasting.
Miserere (1989) for soprano, alto, countertenor, two tenors, bass, mixed choir, instrumental ensemble and organ
One of Arvo Pärt’s main compositions, Miserere (completed in 1989), is one of the most dramatic and contrasting pieces among his tintinnabuliworks. The composer has combined two texts of different origin and form: the prose text of Psalm 50 (51) is interlaced with verses from the Dies irae part of the requiem. Psalm 50 (51) describes King David’s despair over his adultery and blood guilt, and has thus become a symbol of the human contrition of an individual. The text of Dies irae, on the other hand, depicts the Day of Judgement over all of mankind.
Arvo Pärt has described the creation of Miserere as follows:
“This work is structured so that there is one breath for each word, as though after pronouncing each word one has to gather one’s strength for the next word. /.../ Imagine a criminal standing before the court, waiting for the final verdict, and he has one last chance to speak. There is not much time for these last explanations and he must choose his words with utmost care, because his fate depends on them. Each word is like a small weight trying to regain the balance of the scales.”
The difference of the texts is also reflected in the composition of performers: the prayer of David, a single person, is performed by vocal soloists accompanied by select instruments in various combinations, whereas in the scenes form the Day of Justice over all mankind, the choir sings together with the instrumental tutti. In anticipation of redemption, these two perspectives seem to melt into one as a single silent prayer in the coda. The composition of the instrumental ensemble greatly influences the soundscape of the entire work. In addition to the organ, wind instruments (oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, trumpet and trombone) and percussion, it also includes an electric guitar and bass guitar.
Characteristic of Pärt’s tintinnabuli works, here too the structure of the musical composition is based on text; entries from different voices are subordinated to very strict mathematical rules. Various parameters of the text (such as punctuation marks, number of syllables in words and emphases) all play an important role in the creation of the melody. Even pauses, which follow each word in the parts of the psalm text, and hence acquire special weight and significance, depend on punctuation marks, and their length is determined by a certain set of rules.
Miserere was dedicated to Paul Hillier and the Hilliard Ensemble, who also premiered the composition with an instrumental ensemble and the Western Wind Choir on 17 June 1989 at St. Georges de Boscherville monastery in Rouen during the d’Eté de Seine-Maritime summer festival.
Else Torp (soprano), Iris Oja (alto), Endrik Üksvärav (tenor), Tõnis Kaumann (tenor), William Gaunt (bass), Ene Salumäe (organ), Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, members of the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra