In 1968, as Warsaw Pact forces invaded and occupied what was then Czechoslovakia, a young composer in another corner of the Soviet Union did something just as provocative.
In Estonia, the composer Arvo Pärt produced a musical piece titled “Credo.” “Credo” means “I believe” in Latin. “Believe in what?” you ask. “I believe in Jesus Christ” was Pärt’s answer, followed by Matthew 5:38-39, “‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.’”
This kind of open declaration of Christian faith was unacceptable in the USSR. According to Pärt’s biographer, Paul Hilliard, the Soviets saw the “strongly personalized religious declaration” of the title and the text itself as a “gesture of defiance” and a “direct provocation.” So the Soviets promptly banned “Credo.”
Their actions, however, did not end the composer’s career, nor did it dampen his commitment to composing music inspired by his faith. Instead, “Credo” would mark the start of a 50-year run that has made Pärt the most performed living composer in the world.
More importantly, “Credo” also marked a musical and spiritual turning point in his life.
As Hilliard describes, by 1968, Pärt had written himself into a kind of musical cul-de-sac.
Up to that point, he utilized thoroughly modern forms of music, such as serialism and collage, in his compositions. Along the way, he had grown skeptical that “progress in art” was even possible, or at least progress that was in any way analogous to the progress seen in science.
So Pärt began to look back instead of forward for his inspiration, back to “early music”—which for him meant music before Bach. Not coincidentally, it was during this part of his career that Pärt experienced a spiritual awakening.
It led him to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church.
With his faith and his art now inseparably intertwined, Pärt began to compose his most powerful works, sacred music for chorus.
Like that early music that inspired him, Pärt believes, as he once told the BBC, that the text is “more important than the music.” Thus, Pärt uses his music to draw the listener’s attention to what is being said, and describes the listener’s task to “find what is behind every word.”
As one critic pointed out, “What is interesting in Pärt’s music is what is not there. There is little rhythmic complexity, no extravagant use of orchestration, no self-conscious harmonic display or dissonance.”
In other words, there’s nothing that would obscure the text and distract from its message. These elements especially come together in his 1982 composition, “Passio.” The Latin text is from John 18 and 19.
Arrangement-wise, it couldn’t be simpler: two soloists, a quartet and a choir accompanied by an organ and a few other instruments.
But in a simplicity in service of the text, the piece has, in Pärt’s words, “given food for hundreds and thousands of composers, and it will continue to do so.”
The music is timeless in the way that a religious icon is: Both are windows into eternity. At the end you are ready to join Pärt in the closing prayer of “Passio,” which is also the central message of Holy Week: “You have suffered for us, have mercy on us. Amen.”
That the message of Holy Week and the message of Arvo Pärt’s music are “inextricably intertwined” is exactly as art and faith should be.
But, unfortunately, it so rarely is.
John Stonestreet is a commentator for BreakPoint, a Christian worldview ministry established by Chuck Colson in 1991.