To hazard being hackneyed, I don’t remember the first time I heard Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina with my ears. I knew it as the piece that woke the composer from his creative slumber, as the world’s introduction to his tintinnabuli (‘bell-like’) style, and other such bits that are important to musicians and to no one else. But I do remember the first time I heard it with my eyes.
It was a Sunday evening in April, and I felt numb afterwards, like after a good cry.
The two-page score of Für Alina is an artifact of human perfectionism. Visually, it lacks the shoulder-shrugged, pianistic flair of Rachmaninoff, the rococo loop-di-loop satisfaction of Bach, or the palm-on-forehead-“So-that’s-how-he-did-it!” of reading through Beethoven or Wagner. This work is Pärt at his most naked minimalism. The notes don’t even have stems. There are no time signatures, and the tempo marking – Ruhig, erhaben, in sich hineinhorchend (“peacefully, in an elevated and introspective manner”) – seems to imply a slow tempo while politely declining to say how slow. Easy enough for a child to play, yet so delicate that performing it well requires a very skilled touch, ear, and the patience of age. Somehow, when fully beheld, Für Alina is one of the most complete and arm-tingling-ly beautiful pieces of music ever.
The work’s perfection begins with and returns to its typography; that is, how Pärt arranges the ink on the page. The stemless notes and predilection for white space are not accidental. The sonic realization of the piece is entirely informed by these typographical decisions. Pärt implies everything through the typography, except indication for how difficult simplicity can be, like an unmarked doorway into the sublime. Realizing the score at the piano enters one into the world of music where words of course no longer matter, a place of ineffable beauty.
The work’s opening notes – a pair of quixotic B-naturals two octaves apart on the lower end of the piano – resonate through the instrument and the listener’s mind. They receive one measure before the bottom stave vanishes, implied by the note ties leading into the white space that follows. These pedaled notes fade through most of the piece, disappearing first from the piano, and then from memory. As the background, they reshape the sonorities of the simple parallel lines of the foreground as it augments in length from two notes per measure to eight before diminishing back down to two, resting finally on a three-note cadencial gesture. These first two enigmatic notes are the climax of the piece, the rest a symmetrical song of denouement.
Space lies between every molecule of Für Alina. White space on the score, musical space between the note voicings, space lingering in the time between each note and measure, acoustic space resonating within the piano body, physical space between the piano and listener, and so on, like a pebble dropped in a puddle, rippling out from notation to piano to ear to mind, all instances of space analogous to one another. As each note decays, the mind tries to catch some elusive thought escaping between the ripples. Like all that is beautiful, this is a progression towards infinity, holistic, inward, and upward. Musically, Für Alina is not defined by its sequences of sound in time, but by the careful placement of sound in space. It is physical motion within eternity.
To some extent the piece is utterly infuriating. It is straightforward yet allusive, childish yet genius. As a feat of human craft, Für Alina removes all but the minimum from the page to activate the potential of natural acoustics. As a work of art, it pushes deeper into the human relationship with the mystical and the divine than some very intentional sounds and typographical decisions should be able to push. But it does, and without wasting further words, take a look and take a listen.