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  • Writer's pictureSimon Rushby

Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

#listeneveryday 10 Nov 2020

In our busy world, stillness is hard to come by. Enforced lockdown has been cruel to everybody affected by it this year, but many have commented that they have found within its difficulties some opportunities to re-evaluate, think, contemplate, appreciate and simply to be quiet.

In 1976, after a long, partly enforced period of inactivity as a composer, Arvo Pärt 'rebooted' his musical style, settling on a technique he called 'tintinnabuli' - a stripped down, simple style combining bell-like triads in one part with tonal, stepwise movement in another. Two years later, one of his most famous works, Spiegel im Spiegel, was written using this technique.

Originally for violin and piano (as in this version), Spiegel im Spiegel (which is German for mirror(s) in the mirror, referring to the infinite number of reflections two mirrors can produce) has been performed with a number of alternative melodic instruments. It sits, calmly, in the key of F major, outlined by the ever-moving piano, while the solo instruments explores single notes. The result is haunting, beautiful, sonorous and calming, and it cemented Pärt's reputation as one of the world's leading living composers.

The Soviet regime forced Arvo Pärt to leave Estonia in 1980 and he lived in Austria and Germany for a time before returning to his homeland in around 2000. In 2010 he established a centre in his home village, containing a concert hall, library and research and educational resources.

Something to do

In terms of notes and rhythms, Spiegel im Spiegel is not difficult to play. It's craft lies in the control of tempo and sound, in order to get the most expression out of a small amount of material. There's lots on this web page, including a more detailed breakdown of the music, a snippet of the score for you to try yourself, and a link to a Radio 4 programme where people describe what the piece means to them.

Arvo Pärt's music lends itself brilliantly to visuals, of course, so it's no surprise that it has been used in countless films. Here's the trailer for Gravity which features Spiegel im Spiegel at the start. Warning - the stillness is broken pretty quickly...

More to listen to

The composer himself discusses another piece in his tintinnabuli style - Fur Alina of 1976

Pärt's music is sometimes described as 'minimalism' since it uses a small amount of material. One leading minimalist composer is Philip Glass - the Prelude to his opera Akhnaten is a well-known example of his music.

The band Coldplay have used minimalist techniques and sonorities in some of their music - such as their 2002 hit Clocks.

A new #listeneveryday post is published every weekday! Comment below or tweet @SimonRushby with your suggestions for future music.

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