Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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The Composer's Hand: An Analysis of Selected String Orchestral Works by Arvo Pärt

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posted on 2021-11-22, 10:08 authored by Johnson, Mark

Arvo Pärt’s music has received little attention from theoretical scholars, in part, because it is often labelled as minimalist or process music. This is due primarily to his use of limited sets of musical materials and predetermined repetitive melodic and rhythmic procedures. In this sense, it is implied that authorial decisions play little role in the compositional process of his music. In addition, the confluences of multiple M-voice/T-voice pairings, which create a rich array of harmonically non-functional chord progressions, do not lend themselves to traditional approaches to musical analysis, thus acting as a further deterrent to analysts and theorists.  This investigation postulates that the presence of the ‘composer’s hand’ is much more significant in Pärt’s music than has been previously realised by those who label his music as minimalist or process music; and by engaging in a multimodal methodology, this thesis demonstrates that Pärt’s music does, in fact, respond to post-tonal analytical approaches. It also shows that a non-traditional application of post-tonal analytical techniques can yield valuable and productive insights into Pärt’s compositional system, and that there is actually much for theorists and analysts to discover in his music.  The approach to the investigation is based on drawing from and combining several post-tonal analytical methods, any one of which would be insufficient on its own, given the uniqueness of Pärt’s sound world and the fact that such approaches have been developed to enlighten very different repertoires. The methodology incorporates the following post-tonal analytical methods: descriptions of the ‘musical fabric’ of each work; a detailed analysis of how each composition appears to have been constructed; new approaches to visualising the relationships between the pitch classes of particular works; and mappings of each work’s pitch-class and interval-vector content.  This investigation demonstrates, through multimodal analysis of six selected string orchestral works by the composer, that hidden beneath the seemingly ‘minimal’ surface layers of Pärt’s music are carefully crafted musical constructions that result from intersecting procedures and multifaceted rules, as well as what appear to be intentional exceptions to those rules – thus revealing the composer’s hand. An awareness of these hidden constructions and the careful craftsmanship that went into their creation can provide the informed listener with the critical foundation from which the aesthetic value of Pärt’s music can be assessed and appreciated.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

New Zealand School of Music


Cosper, David; McKinnon, Dugal