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Arvo Pärt: Sacred Music for Sacred Words

Illuminated music

The Oklahoma City Museum of Art is housing an incredible exhibit from October 15 through January 8.  Sacred Words: The Saint John’s Bible and the Art of Illumination will feature the first full-length, illuminated, and hand-written bible to be commissioned in over 500 years.  It was created by an army of artists and scribes under the direction of Donald Jackson, one of the foremost calligraphers in the world and the scribe to Queen Elizabeth’s Crown office at the House of Lords.  This bible was meticulously crafted using medieval materials and techniques.  The pages are made of vellum, and feather quills and natural ink mixed with ground pigment were used to write the text.  However, the end result does not look anything like a bible from the Medieval period.  It is a work of 21st century art that depicts images and themes that will speak to today’s viewers.  Jackson’s use of ancient techniques to create something modern immediately brought to mind the oeuvre of one of the greatest living composers, and I feel that his music makes the perfect accompaniment for this extraordinary exhibit.

The Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, was born in 1935 and showed an interest in composition from childhood.  His early compositions were in the atonal style of composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, but he never found his footing while writing this way.  He had decided to give up composition altogether when he happened upon a recording of Medieval chant while browsing through a record store and was instantly struck by its beauty and expressiveness.  Pärt said of this experience, “I had never heard this music before. And when I came across it by chance, I knew: this is what we now need, what I now need.”

He threw himself into the study of early music for several years and began writing daily “prayers” in a melismatic style indicative of Medieval music.  Pärt describes this practice as “building a bridge within [himself] between yesterday and today—a yesterday that was several centuries old—and this encouraged [him] to go on exploring.”  The result of this exploration can be heard in the numerous masterpieces created by one of the most unique voices in classical music; music that feels as ancient as the text it represents but that speaks directly to its 21st century audience through the language of modern harmony.

Visit your library to experience the music set to sacred text by Arvo Pärt, and be sure to visit Sacred Words: The Saint John’s Bible and the Art of Illumination at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.



Adam's Lament by Arvo Pärt

Performed by a superb group of Baltic musicians, the album makes a fine choice for those wishing to explore new directions in Pärt's music.

An den Wassern zu Babel by Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt's works for chorus are the key to his brand of mystical minimalism, with the resonant mass of human voices conveying a nearly medieval quality of collective spiritual awe and devotion which is quite evident in this work.

The Beatitudes by Arvo Pärt


Magnificat by Arvo Pärt

One of Pärt’s newest and greatest works combining modern composition with the eternal emotion of spiritual music.

Nunc Dimitis by Arvo Pärt


Stabat Mater by Arvo Pärt

Pärt’s beautiful interpretation of this 13th century Franciscan poem.

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