BANNED MEDIA MONTH #8: Credo, by Arvo Pärt (1968)

Type of Media: Musical Composition

Music is intertwined with the spiritual. Since the dawn of civilization, music has been used to call the spirits and open people's eyes to whatever exists beyond. However, in the devoutly atheist Soviet Union, music that was spiritual was music that was flawed. Estonian composer Arvo Pärt can recall his Soviet music teacher saying that Bach was great, but he would've been greater if he hadn't been so religious.

Pärt, born in 1935, is now considered a national treasure in his home country. Though his work is heard and appreciated around the world today (his music is performed more than any other living composer), in the 1960s he was despised by the Soviet musical establishment. The secretary for the Union of Soviet Composers derided his work as avant-garde music for the bourgeois. Pärt's modernist compositions definitely ruffled feathers, but he didn't get into real trouble until 1968 when he debuted Credo.

The basis for Credo is a Bach piece, specifically the prelude to The Well-Tempered Clavier. Bach's original is basically an arpeggio in C major played with different chords, and it sounds very uplifting and jubilant. Pärt has a piano playing those arpeggios backed with an orchestra and a choral section that sings a section from the Gospel of Matthew in Latin: "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil."

The piece sounds majestic and heavenly, but then things start to change. Drums begin to ominously rumble, as the different sections of the orchestra start playing a discordant inversion of the original arpeggio. The playing speeds up, starting and stopping abruptly, while the chorus sings a single phrase over an over, "Oculum pro oculus, dentem pro dente," or "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". All of the instruments enter a frenzy, and the choir starts shrieking, before the piano comes back with its peaceful C major arpeggio. The orchestra goes silent, then softly returns to normal, eventually building back to the grandeur with which it started.

While Credo could be read as a simple piece of order and chaos, it hints at being more complex than that. The C major arpeggio seems to represent the word of Christ, so when the arpeggio gets inverted and ushers in chaos, that chaos stems from a perversion of the original melody. Additionally, while the chorus sings the complete passage from Matthew during the beginning, in the in frenzied middle they focus only on the message "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," which is the very message that the gospel is trying to dissuade people from following. Credo could very well be about how the message of Christianity often gets twisted into something violent, but ultimately peaceful adherence to Jesus' teachings will triumph over the brutality.

The overt Christianity of Credo, with its opening line of "I believe in Jesus Christ" sung in Latin, deeply offended the anti-religious brass in Moscow and Estonia. To make matters worse, the fact that audiences loved it made the song dangerous in the minds of the Soviet officials. The arrangement was banned from ever being played again, Pärt was blacklisted, and he stopped composing music regularly. 

However, this would only lead to his evolution. Pärt began studying religious music even more intensely, and nearly a decade after Credo debuted Tabula Rasa, the song that would lead to his worldwide recognition. Pärt left Estonia until the Soviet Union fell in 1991, when he returned and was welcomed back with open arms.