An Analysis of Cantus In Memoriam of Benjamin Britten


Note: This is an essay I wrote during my University studies and is by no means a definitive guide to this excellent piece. Musical excerpts are for educational purposes only.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has become one of the most important and influential 20th century composers around. His musical journey throughout his life has been profound, leading him from the fashionable composing techniques in his early years to becoming a leading composer in a style commonly named ‘Holy Minimalism’ or ‘Sacred Minimalism’ similar to composers such as Tavener and Górecki. His early compositions were mostly in a Neo-Classical style influenced by composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev, but he soon moved on to using serialism techniques and employing the Twelve-tone system in his work. This however proved unpopular with the Soviet establishment at the time as well as leaving Pärt musically unfulfilled.

“He had reached a position of complete despair in which the composition of music appeared to be the most futile of gestures, and he lacked the musical faith and will-power to write even a single note”[1]

During this time, Pärt contemplated composing music using a different approach. He studied early music from the Medieval and Renaissance eras, looking at Gregorian chants and Plainsong and eventually joining the Russian Orthadox church. It was these decisions that shaped the style of music that Pärt would compose in the future; the style of which he would label as tintinnabuli similar to the sound of ringing bells. One of Pärts’ most popular works entitled ‘Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten’ for string orchestra and bell, emerged from this new style, a work of great importance in his composing history.

The idea behind this piece as with many pieces in the Holy Minimalist style is very simple. The melody is simply an A minor scale descending in canon.  This melody is played by the first violins and harmonised by the lower half of the divisi violins moving down from A with intervals of thirds of fourths. The way the scale is used is shown below in the top half of the divisi first violin part. The melody moves down from A to G, then A to G to F, then A to G to F to E and so on.


(Score Extract from Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, Universal Edition 1981)

The lower strings mimic this pattern but instead the length value of each note is increased. The second violins play each note twice as long, the violas play four times as long, the cellos play eight times as long and the basses play sixteen times as long. This technique is known as a mensuration canon, a technique popular in Renaissance music. This combination of slow changes amongst the strings provides a haunting yet heavenly sound keeping the right tone for the subject of the work. By looking at the combination of the string parts below, you can see how the music uses the tintinnabuli style with the prolonged use of each note resembling the continued resonance of bells even when other notes are being rung. By sticking to one simple idea however, the dense sounding texture that is heard as the piece builds up avoids sounding dissonant which is why using only the descending scale of A minor works so well.


(Score Extract from Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, Universal Edition 1981)

The pattern of the melody in each of the sections continues until bar 65 when a change occurs. When the first violins in middle C they hold this note until the very end of the piece. This signifies the start of the gradual deconstruction of the canon after the climax, which at this point is at fff. At bar 76 the second violins hit the bottom A and then hold that note out till the end of the piece. The rest of the string sections gradually follow suit until the end of the piece where the strings hold the chord of A minor for five bars and two beats.

The choice of instrumentation plays an important part of the pieces’ success too. By only having the music played by string orchestra and bell, all other musical colour is removed by not having Brass or Woodwind sections playing which seems to be in keeping with the Holy Simplicity ethos. Perhaps the use of only the string section of an orchestra here also bears the closest resemblance to that of a choir.

Alongside the string orchestra, a bell is played periodically throughout the piece. The bells function in the piece is very important as it symbolically begins and ends the piece too. After three beats of silence at the beginning of the piece, the bell is hit with the dynamics ppp four times before the Violins enter with the A minor scale. There is only one pitched used for the bell and that is the note A.  The most notable use of the bell is at the very end of the piece where it is struck at pp, just as the strings stop playing. This means the impact of the bell being hit cannot be heard so after the strings stop all that can be heard are the reverberations of the note, perhaps another way of making the strings resemble ringing bells.


(Score Extract from Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, Universal Edition 1981)

When listening carefully, one can notice that although the bell is the note A, the overtone that can be heard is the note C#. Therefore the piece can appear to end on an A major chord. A minor piece ending in a major chord was a popular Baroque technique called ‘Tierce de Picardie’ and this method could have been purposely used to create a feeling of hope despite the current sadness despite its’ rather subtle use.

Much like the structure of the melodies in the piece, the dynamics are based upon development and movement. Starting at ppp, the piece gradually gets louder as the parts develop until they reach bar 63 where the piece is at its loudest (fff). After the canon starts its deconstruction phase at bar 65, the piece gradually winds down to a comfortable mf where it stays until the end of the piece.

Another important device used in this piece is the use of silence.

“How we live depends on our relationship with death: how we make music depends on our relationship to silence”[2]

Perhaps this then, explains the fact that silence has been written into the score as seen below. This piece is based on progression and the gradual entry of each part, so silence therefore, is part of that progression.


(Score Extract from Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, Universal Edition 1981)

The subtle inclusions in the piece like this for example, may be a way that Pärt communicates his ideas or beliefs through his music. Perhaps in his eyes, death is simply a natural part of the progression through life, much like silence is a natural part of the progression of music. Perhaps then, Pärts’ inclusion of the bell with the C# overtone is his way of conveying the idea that there is hope after death. Many conclusions can be made about certain devices Pärt uses in his music.

Overall, the piece successfully portrays the mood of the composer whilst writing it. It sticks to the conventions of what is called Holy Minimalism without being limited by its’ musical boundaries. The idea, simple it may be, is executed particularly well creating variety amongst the string orchestras’ performance despite the limitations of its’ original concept.

“I love his music, and I love the fact that he is such a brave, talented man. He’s completely out of step with the zeitgeist and yet he’s enormously popular, which is so inspiring. His music fulfils a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.” [3]

This quote from an interview from Steve Reich sums up perfectly why Pärts’ music and that of the Holy Minimalism genre proves so popular. It is possible to go against what may seem fashionable or intellectual and create music which is just as profound, musical and of an equal standing to that which many deem to be the more trendy approach to composing. The piece that Pärt has created demonstrates that the connection between religion and spiritual beliefs still exists.

[1]Avro Pärt (Oxford Studies of Composers), 1997. Paul Hillier. Oxford University Press.
[2]Avro Pärt (Oxford Studies of Composers), p.96. 1997. Paul Hillier. Oxford University Press.
[3]Interview with Steve Reich, Wikipedia 2007.

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