Arvo Part, revisited

Following up on my previous post about Arvo Part, I should report that I have listened through his “Passio” a couple of times now.  It is a setting of the passion story from John’s Gospel.  So here’s where I am as of this moment (no doubt it will be different next week):

1. The music hangs around the words very much like Gregorian chant with a kind of organic incorporation of instruments, which strikes me as an attractive thing.

2. The general tone of the whole thing is brooding and sad, but yields to a brilliant major chord at the end, which emphasizes the joy of the resurrection.  That’s a nice effect.

3. The entire piece avoids the tonic until the end.  While other voices go various places, the voice of Jesus almost always begins and ends on the same note, namely the fifth above the tonic.  This keeps up until the very end, when the the voice of Jesus descends to the tonic at the words “It is finished.”  Very, very nice effect.

4. It is a monotonous piece.  I think it would take a long time to be able to hear a snatch and know instantly from the music (as opposed to the words) what part was playing.  Put another way, Part’s setting does not make it so that when I read a certain part of the passion a particular musical memory comes to mind.  The tone and melody and so on do not change from scene to scene; there are occasional variations in motif, but they are very occasional and I have not been able to tell that they are related to the meaning of the text.

A couple of weeks ago a friend told me that Arvo’s setting of the passion just didn’t “stick” for him.  “No, it sticks,” I responded, “that is, in my throat.”  And that’s no longer true.  I don’t find it offensive; it is nice in many ways.  I am not yet at the point of thinking it brilliant.  But I can keep listening to it for Holy Week without reluctance.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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