About the Te Deum

I’ve referred to the Pärt Te Deum a few times but haven’t written much detail about it yet. It’s a difficult piece to write about. Almost a half hour long, much of it consists, as Steve Schwartz writes, of variations on D modality—major to minor and back. Many of the individual vocal parts do little more than oscillate around the notes of a ringing triad, from the third to the octave to the fifth and so on. But the music as a whole is a magnificent statement of faith. How does Pärt arrive from such simple materials at such a high spiritual peak?

The answer is partly structural, partly tonal, partly something else. The entire piece hovers around D, and Pärt makes it explicit with a D drone that begins in a low organ (or wind harp!) note, moves up to the basses and cellos, disappears in the middle, then returns in the violins and moves back down the octaves. Pärt’s deep faith is well documented, and my reading of the D drone is that it functions as a reminder of eternity, that regardless of the iterations of voicings and time, there are eternal truths.

The voicing tells the story of faith against this background. The entire piece is a colloquoy among plainchant, orchestra, and triadic singing. I read the melodic plainchant, which is ever changing, as humanity, and the triadic voicings (the third, antiphonal choir), which weave a more static melody from D major and D minor triads, as a choir of angels. One conductor I’ve sung under reads the orchestra as a kind of Greek chorus that comments on the interaction between the two.

With this framework, the piece can be read as a long striving of humanity to reach the perfection of the angels. So the first Sanctus, uttered in a unison D minor plainchant by the tenors and basses, is echoed in a D minor triadic Sanctus by the antiphonal choir. The entire piece is built on groupings of three: three choirs, three contributions of three part phrases from the orchestra, building blocks of chant + triadic song + orchestra, and so on, that Pärt varies for dramatic effect. Accordingly, there are three dramatic moments of unison between the plainchant choirs and the antiphonal choir. The first two are followed immediately by plainchant advancing the argument of humanity, while the third is followed by a chanted Amen and an echo of the Sanctus by the antiphonal choir that fades into infinity.

I may find more to write about in the Te Deum as we continue to work on it. I continue to learn more about the piece each time I sing it or listen to it.