Für Alina, a brief and poignantly spare work for piano, represents the essence of the so-called "tintinnabula" technique for which Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has become famous. The work was composed in 1976, a year in which he emerged from a five-year period of intense study and reflection. Pärt's study of medieval and Renaissance church music inspired a new approach to tonality, one that recast triadic tonality within an entirely new kind of musical syntax. Für Alina was the first piece in which this new triadic language coalesced into a consistent method of composition. Simply put, this technique, known as the tintunnabula style for the bell-like sonority it creates, involves two different lines moving in a consistent relationship with each other, one of them moving in a mostly stepwise fashion along notes of the diatonic scale (that is, without chromatic inflections), somewhat after the manner of plainchant, the other moving in tandem with the first but landing only on pitches contained in the tonic triad, or the chord of the piece's home key. This creates an engaging combination of harmonic stability, melodic motion, and occasional shimmering dissonances. While Pärt's formula for tintinnabula-style counterpoint would eventually grow more complex -- tying the lengths of melodic scales to the lengths of words or phrases and associating different kinds of triadic motion to different kinds of melodic shapes -- in Für Alina, the process proceeds in a somewhat freer melodic fashion, with more leaps and turns in the scalar line than one generally encounters in later works. Also, the absence of precise rhythmic notation places greater emphasis on the relationships of the pitches -- which, after all, was the central feature of this newly discovered style. The piece begins with a pair of low, sustained Bs at the bottom of the keyboard, which are sustained with the pedal nearly to the end. The simple, two-part counterpoint places both hands in the upper range of the instrument, their phrases unfolding in fluid gestures that gradually grow note-by-note from a simple half-step motion to an angular eight-note line, before gradually shrinking again to a tiny but intense collection of pitches. A piano dynamic marking prevails throughout. It is this microscopic focus found in the stark lines of Für Alina that would become the defining feature of Pärt's music, even as his tintinnabula technique grew more complex and colorful.
|Piano music by Arvo Pärt|
The composer in 2008
|Dedication||Alina, a friend's daughter|
Für Alina is a work for piano composed by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. It can be considered as an essential work of his tintinnabuli style.
History of composition
Für Alina was first performed in Tallinn in 1976, along with six other works, after a long preparatory period in Pärt's life as a composer. This concert was the first to introduce his new signature style of composition, referred to as the tintinnabuli style.
Für Alina was dedicated to a family friend's eighteen-year-old daughter. The family had broken up and the daughter went to England with her father. The work, dedicated to the daughter, was actually meant as a work of consolation for the girl's mother, missing her child. Its introspection calls to mind a vivid image of youth, off to explore the world.
The piece appears very simple on the page and could be played by any person willing to spend a little time with a piano. It has both the left and right hand written in G clef and only the echoing bass octave is written in F clef. Its simplicity is deceptive. To achieve purity of sound remains a challenge and demands an accomplished pianist with a good ear to produce the harmonic balance and symmetry the composition requires. It is common to repeat the composition several times. Variations could also be applied from one repetition to the other, like the exact 8ava of the two (melody) hands (stead for the length of each full repetition).
The score of Für Alina is only two pages long. It is in the key of B minor and is played piano (p). The only notation related to tempo is Ruhig, erhaben, in sich hineinhorchend, which roughly translates as peacefully, in an elevated and introspective manner. There is no time signature.
It begins with a low double-octave B, which echoes throughout the whole work (save for the last section); it should be played with the pedal down throughout (a single pedal shift is found before the last four bars). The right hand plays the notes an octave higher than noted. Considering there is no time signature, the tempo is free, yet introspective in a way that allows the player to personalize the experience of playing it by responding to the notes and occasional dissonance. Thus the use of rubato becomes essential. Both hands play their single notes at the same time.
Only two types of notes appear in the score: whole notes and stemless black notes (more free as to their duration). It has only 15 bars of written music: the first bar has the low bass octave. From there onwards begins the following pattern: the second bar has one note-head and one whole note, the next bar has two quarter notes and a whole note, and so on until a bar that has seven quarter notes and a whole note. This pattern then scales down again, to one quarter note and a half note. The last bar has two quarter notes and a half note. In other words, the first bar has one note, the second has two, the third has three, and so on. It is built as such: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 3. The compositional symmetry mirrors the harmonic symmetry.
If played softly enough, with the pedal down and given enough time, the notes (often resulting in minor and major clashes between B and C#, D and E, and F# and G) can produce a humming of dissonance in the piano’s machinery, a phenomenon that only adds to the transcendental nature of the piece.
The entire harmonic structure, save for one note, is constructed so that the left hand part is the highest note in a B Minor chord which is below the melody line. Thus, when the melody is on a C# or D, the left hand is on a B. When the melody is on an E or F#, the left hand is on a D, and when the melody is on a G, A, or B, the left hand is on an F#. The only break from this harmonic structure appears when the left hand hits a C# below an F# in the right hand, synchronous with the release of the pedal at the end of the 11th bar.
An essential release[according to whom?], and in fact endorsed by Pärt himself, is the ECM New Series album entitled Alina, recorded in July 1995 and released in 1999. It includes two variations of Für Alina by pianist Alexander Malter, and three versions of Pärt’s Spiegel Im Spiegel (for piano and violin, violoncello, and violin, respectively). According to the liner notes, the two versions, somewhat like “mood improvisations,” were handpicked by Pärt from a recording that was originally several hours long. The two versions most strikingly differ in the use of rubato and that of the use of the low octave b. Both versions clock slightly under eleven minutes.
- This article draws some facts from the liner notes of the ECM album Alina, an essay White Light written by Hermann Conen and translated into English by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart.