Audio recording of the Perpetuum mobile performed by Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Järvi (Virgin Classics, 2004).
Perpetuum mobile (1963) for orchestra
In September 1963, having freshly graduated from the conservatory, Arvo Pärt had a chance to take part for the first time in the Warsaw Autumn festival of contemporary music in Poland. Impressions and inspiration gathered from the event found an output in the orchestral piece Perpetuum mobile, finished already in November of the same year. His new friendship with the Italian avant-garde composer Luigi Nono (1924–1990), whom he had met at the festival, inspired him to dedicate the composition to him. Already in October, shortly after the festival, Nono visited Tallinn and got better acquainted with Pärt’s music.
Luigi Nono visiting Tallinn in October 1963. In the photograph (from left): composer Jaan Koha, Luigi Nono, music critic Luigi Pestalozza and Arvo Pärt. Photo: Arvo Pärt Centre.
Perpetuum mobile was premiered only a month after its completion, on 13 December 1963 at the “Estonia” Concert Hall by the Estonian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. The audience requested a repeat performance, which became a sort of tradition at subsequent performances. With the help of Nono, the composition was performed in several places in Europe; for instance, as part of the music programme of the 1964 Venice Biennale and at the 1965 Warsaw Autumn, where Pärt too was allowed to travel, although as a tourist among a group of students. During the following couple of years, the piece was performed almost 20 times in different countries. One could say that it became the breakthrough piece for Estonian avant-garde music in the Western world.
At first sight, Perpetuum mobile (Latin for “perpetual motion”) appears to be a sound mass that dynamically moves toward its culmination and then recedes into silence. It could be considered the first sonoristic work in Estonian music. However, the composition follows a very strict structure. Pärt combines serialism with the means of the music of timbres. The image of perpetual motion is manifested in the music by a new instrument or group of instruments entering with each following bar, playing a new pitch during a passage of a certain length with a new, constantly repeated rhythmic speed. Moving toward the culmination, the rhythmic speed becomes faster with each new entrance, before slowing down again when the dynamics subside. The pitches of the instruments as they enter are determined by a scale of twelve notes that is presented, in addition to its original form, also in an inverted form, retrograde and retrograde-inversion forms. The composer has explained the idea behind the structure of the piece as follows:
Perpetuum mobile rose out of a mathematical and philosophical idea, and was intended to represent a spiral path that reaches the point where it started, albeit on another level.
[Enzo Restagno (2012). Arvo Pärt in Conversation. Dalkney Archive Press, p. 15]