Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13
Arvo Pärt

Lessons on Creativity, Courtesy of Master Arvo Pärt


A peculiar conversation between Eleonora and Arvo Pärt, which uncovers the composer’s creativity.

Creativity is an odd force. Like physical force, the force of our muscles, we all have it, but each of us in our way. It is an oddity that is somehow clear because, at the end of the day, it is a means; a vehicle. Today it is a fate of cultural veneration, we are told how to foster and exercise it, how to allow it to emerge and manifest itself, how to keep it alive, but, caught up in its praises, we frequently forget to mention an important aspect of it: creativity is a means of expression, not an end in itself. To be creative in order to, in a certain way, be who we are.

In 1978, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt gave an interview on the occasion of the imminent release of his Dreiklangskonzert (also known as the “Italian Concert”), a piece for violin, cello, and chamber orchestra which, after being interpreted before an audience for the first time, he began to rewrite and to this day it is unknown whether a final version exists.

Ivalo Randalu was the man who led the conversation, which surrounded Pärt’s creative process. Like many of us, Randalu also expresses his amazement for the composer’s works and hence circles the enigma, perhaps less in an attempt to decipher it than to place it before himself to observe it better.

Ivalo Randalu: I remember when you came [to the conservatory] in 1954 you had lots of blank sheets with you and you began to write a violin concerto. Then you had a very beautiful prelude a la Rachmaninov cis-moll, which you threw away after a year. You always changed, new qualities emerged. It led to your first symphony in your second year at the conservatory. And all those collages at that time. And then you had to turn again. What was it that made you change so much and move on?

Arvo Pärt: I think maybe the ideals that escort and accompany a human being in his life. Or let’s say – teachers, if we can say so. One has several teachers. One teacher can be the present and the people surrounding him – let’s say some school teachers belong there. At some period of time, a human is like inside these conditions and tuned to them. And then suddenly you discover another teacher for yourself – say, the past; great men of the past; all the cultural treasures of the past. It can happen that he becomes blind to all other things and fixes his view on the past only. And this certainly influences a man, gives a new tinge to his actions. Plus, there maybe exists the greatest teacher of all, I mean, the future – or let’s say, conscience. View yourself – what you’d really like to be. What you aren’t, but how you’d like to see yourself. We can say, it’s like a future we want to arrive at. Is that clear enough? Like an animal or, say, a little child chooses food.

As we can see, from the very beginning, Pärt unfolds the potency of his world vision. Without a doubt, creativity demands masters, but it is striking that one of the most important ones is the moi-même ––What we truly want. What we would never give up. What we often displace, hide and postpone but which, in the end, would be the only thing we would do with authentic passion. “Know thyself” as a motto of creativity.

Further on, Randalu asks Pärt about his early compositions in relation to the “shame” that he apparently feels for his own works.

I.R.: Tell me honestly, didn’t you like it? Was it unfamiliar to you?

A.P.: No, not unfamiliar. I have no standpoint related to my own compositions at all, especially to those written so long ago. I haven’t any contact with them. I have lost intimacy with them, the body warmth. They’re like birds that will fly away after being incubated. Sometimes they seem to come back, because sometimes you happen to listen to some performance or you happen to see the sheet music. Generally, I try to forget all that. It has happened that I wanted to improve some composition and it just doesn’t work. I can’t regenerate that spirit, that model which dominated while composing the original. It’s very important to cleanse yourself, to forget everything before beginning a new composition. And not artificially. Only when you’re empty can something arise.

The interview continues by covering Pärt’s work from a historical point of view: music composed for determinate circumstances, this or that piece in relation to his general corpus, and even certain technical choices of his style.

It is possible, however, that the best moment is when, before the composer’s reticence (“In general I don’t speak much. Right now I’m not inspired. Let’s talk about something else”), Pärt’s wife Eleonora begins an exercise that oscillates between free-association and the narrative flow of a psychologist’s office, an unexpected ritual that will propitiate an unborn work:

A.P.: (makes some obscure movements in the air with his hand) Well, that way…

E.P.: What is “that way”? But maybe you don’t start writing at all but dancing instead. Tell me “that way” is? What sound it is?

A.P.: What sound?

E.P.: What colour does this sound have?

A.P.: Blue.

E.P.: What kind of blue?

A.P.: Bright blue.

E.P.: Almost white?

A.P.: Yes.

E.P.: Good, we reached somewhere at last. Does it fly or jump or walk?

A.P.: The sun is shining there, but we don’t see the sun.

E.P.: We are not blinded?

A.P.: No, we aren’t. Our spirit longs for this colour and light and wants like to fly toward it. You’d like to go instantly…

E.P.: What ties it up? Which colours burden it?

A.P.: It’s tied up with chains.

I.R.: But does it break free?

A.P.: What’s the point in living if you don’t believe in breaking free?

I.R.: But still, actually…

A.P.: What actually?

I.R.: Does it break free?

A.P.: Of course it does.

This ceremony of direct questions and short answers goes on for some time until it reaches a conclusive pause, which we can also stop at. A phrase that is very much in Pärt’s style: concise and emotional at once, eloquent in its frugality, minimal and, still, endless:

E.P.: What’s the happiness in music, then?

A.P.: Happiness is the same everywhere. Be it in music, or whatever.

Related Articles