Holy Minimalism

Holy Minimalism: Three Visions of Saint Mesrob

The life of Mesrob Mashtots spanned the late fourth and early fifth centuries AD. He is most famous for creating the Armenian alphabet, which is a unique script for a rather unique language. He was a son of lower nobility, rather like another composer we’ve discussed. This obviously meant that he received an education in the arts. This education is what he drew upon in order to become one of the most important figures in the history of the Armenian Nation.

He certainly deserves his own slot in the Composer of the Week series, but this post is not that. Here, we will be focusing on a piece of modern music that takes its inspiration from the life of Saint Mesrob. It’s called the Three Visions of Saint Mesrob by Alan Hovhaness. The work consists of three short pieces for violin and piano. Each piece depicts a different vision: Celestial Mountain, Celestial Bird and Celestial Alphabet. I recently had the great pleasure to play this piece for a small audience in a beautiful Anglican chapel in South Africa.

The Structure of the Piece

The first of the three movements, the Celestial Mountain, opens with slow, gently dissonant quavers. The time signature is an expansive, rather unstable 7/4. The chords evoke mountain peaks as they move up and down. They even cut an angular, mountainous figure on the page. When the violin enters, at the bottom of its register, the piano falls into sustained semibreves. The violin stays on the G string the whole way through, moving up in positions rather than changing to the D string. There are some languid glissando passages that resolve back onto the strong tonal center of the piece, B. Glissando is a string technique in which the player slides the finger up and down the string, producing a sliding sound. It’s a lot more fun that it sounds.

The mountain that Hovhaness is describing is probably Mount Ararat, legendary resting place of Noah’s Ark. This mountain is an ancient symbol of the Armenian nation, even though, throughout history, it has changed hands more times than anyone can really say. This is the ancient monastery of Khor Virap (literally “deep prison”).

The second movement, the Celestial Bird, also starts with a piano solo. This time the piano is harp-like, repeating one small, vaguely modal scale. In this interpretation, the pianist plays this quite rapidly and spikily, evoking a bird shaking itself off in a pool of water before taking flight. The violin enters smoothly in a high position on the E string, playing melodic segments ad libitum throughout until taking its leave. The piano brings the piece to a conclusion with rapid yet gentle demi-semiquavers. This short, intense piece evokes the bird, a symbol of Hope, and of the Holy Spirit.

The third and final movement references Mesrop’s most famous achievement, the Armenian alphabet. Here we find ourselves back in a dissonant world, like the first movement. We hear long sequences of harshly dissonant sevenths while the violin again climbs somberly up and down the G string. The piece concludes with two major sevenths near the bottom of the piano, with the violin sustaining a long B.

Holy Minimalism

This piece exemplifies what musicologists have begun to call Holy Minimalism. While this isn’t a school with strictly defined limits, the term is useful. It allows us to describe a tendency emerging among some of the greatest contemporary composers. The term originated as an insult and is still used that way by the aggressively misanthropic and maladjusted cohort that controls academic institutions. Nevertheless, what unites the various composers who have been associated with the term Holy Minimalism is an insistence on simplicity, coupled with a tendency to rely on spiritual themes. Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki and John Tavener are some of the names associated with this label. If you delve into the music of any of these men, which I recommend you do, you will find a radical disconnect with the grimy, banal smallness of modern life.  You’re here now, so you may as well begin.

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