This brief article describes our listening example by Arvo Pärt, Magnificat. Please pay special attention to the compositional technique of tintinnabuli, which refers to a ringing or bell-like sound—you can follow this link for more of an explanation. You definitely hear that in Magnificat when a triad is sung by three voice parts while a fourth sings a simple stepwise melody. Do you remembrer the Notre Dame style organum we studed back in our coverage of the Middle Ages? Those passages in Magnificat featuring a drone against a melodic line reflect the direct influence of that medieval genre on this modern composition.


Magnificat was composed in 1989 by Arvo Pärt. A setting of the Latin Magnificat text, it is in tintinnabuli style, which was invented by Pärt in the mid-1970s. It is scored a cappella formixed choir: soprano solo, sopranos I and II, alto, and tenor and bass divisi. It lasts approximately seven minutes.


Stylistic Aspects

Tintinnabulation is the most important aspect of Pärt’s Magnificat. According to Pärt’s biographer and friend Paul Hillier, the Magnificat “displays the tintinnabuli technique at its most supple and refined.” Pärt also uses drones; a second-line G in the alto near the end of the piece, as well as the third-space C (on which the soprano solo line always stays) which provides a tonal center for the piece. Hillier says that “many pieces [by Pärt] tend through length and repetition to establish a sense of timelessness or a continual present; the use of drones (which are in a sense a continuous repetition) reinforces this effect.”

Arvo Pärt’s wife Nora has said of his music,

The concept of tintinnabuli was born from a deeply rooted desire for an extremely reduced sound world which could not be measured, as it were, in kilometres, or even metres, but only in millimetres….By the end the listening attention is utterly focused. At the point after the music has faded away it is particularly remarkable to hear your breath, your heartbeat, the lighting or the air conditioning system, for example.


Structurally, the work can be divided into what Hillier refers to as “verse” and “tutti” sections. The verse sections include one voice (often a soprano solo) which remains constantly on third-space C, as well as a lower, melodic line. The tutti sections make use of either three, four, or six voice parts. The soprano soloist joins in the tutti sections at times. The progression of sections is:

Section style Voices Textual incipit
Verse SS Magnificat anima mea
Tutti TTB et exultavit
Verse S solo, T quia respexit
Tutti STB ecce enim
Verse S solo, B Quia fecit
Tutti SSA qui potens est
Tutti SATB et sanctum
Tutti SSATTB et misericordia
Verse S solo, B Fecit potentiam
Tutti SSA dispersit superbos
Verse S solo, A drone, T deposuit
Tutti ATB et exaltavit
Verse SS esurientes
Tutti TTB et divites
Tutti S solo, SSATB Suscepit Israel
Tutti SSATTB puerum suum
Verse SS recordatus
Tutti SII drone, TTB sicut locutus
Verse S solo, SII drone, T Abraham et semini
Tutti SATBB Magnificat anima mea
Tutti S solo, SATBB Dominum

Text Setting

Setting text to music can be accomplished in many different ways. Hillier says that Pärt “works outwards from the structure of the text.” In the tutti sections, “the number of syllables determines the notes to be used…the stressed syllable is alternately the pitch centre and, in the next word, the note furthest away from it.” In verse sections, Pärt “seems to have allowed himself an unusual degree of freedom…the stressed syllables do frequently coincide with a change of melodic direction.”

While the texture is mainly homophonic, a new rhythmic device is introduced when the choir sings “dispersit superbos”. As if taking instruction from the text, the choir does, in fact, divide; while all voices begin the word together, only the melodic voice continues immediately onward. The other voices rest a beat before continuing with the second syllable.