Arvo Pärt, Spiegel im Spiegel

“I could compare my music to white light which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.”

-Arvo Pärt

The end credits of the movie Wit roll as this piece is playing. If you’ve seen the movie, then you’d know I’m already crying at the end as they show the split screen with Emma Thompson’s character, Professor Vivian Bearing, healthy, and her character deceased. I’m sobbing. And it all starts, really, 10 or 15 minutes before the end, when Ms. Bearing is so ill she can no longer speak. She lies in the hospital bed, letting the other characters exposit what’s going on. Her own college professor from many years ago, Professor Forster, comes to visit her, enters the scene; she’s in town to see a grandson and went to the university to ask for Vivian, and the faculty tells Ms. Forster she’s in the hospital.

Ms. Forster slides open the door. Vivian sees her and begins to cry. Her only friend, you see. Ms. Forster removes her shoes and lies next to Vivian and reads her Runaway Bunny, a children’s story, something that isn’t John Donne. Vivian cries herself to sleep. Ms. Forster kisses her tenderly on the head, fares her well, and leaves. This scene is so tender, so compassionate, so poignant, one can’t help but cry.

And 10 or 15 minutes later, the movie’s over.

Except it isn’t. See, it’s this piece that keeps me from turning off the DVD player. (Yes, I own this movie.) It doesn’t contain trills or glisses or fugal elements. Three-note repeating sequences on the piano with that gentle, bassy boom every so often at the left of the keyboard, and the cello sweeps along the progression with long, bowing tones. Two – TWO! – instruments. It seems like it could go forever – I want it to – but here, it lasts eight and a half minutes.

It’s powerful, it’s so simple it’s brilliant and it’s brilliant because the catharsis just happens, and like Mr. Pärt says, I can see all these colo(u)rs, and my life seems to gain all this depth and passion and … clarity. Colors. Definition. Meaning. If I had stopped that movie before the credits rolled seven years ago, I would have been fine, but since I didn’t, I can’t imagine its absence. It’s white light I can see.

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4 thoughts on “Arvo Pärt, Spiegel im Spiegel

  1. Thank you, thank you, for your wonderful comment on Spiegel im Spiegel. As I got to your piece only by Googling the composition name, I did not know, thought I wasn’t surprised to find, that a discussion of the piece is only enhanced by having seen “Wit.” Here it is, 9 years after its creation and we watched the movie for the 1st time last night, which we also could not turn off until the closing credits were all done. Haunting, intense and multi-layered, Part’s work is deeply moving.

  2. I loved this movie so much and reacted in the same way. I even went and bought the book “The Runaway Bunny” after seeing it. The simple and beautiful piece made me go in search of the sheet music, which I couldn’t get through an American publisher. The piece is simple sounding, but only an advanced musician can do it justice, as each note needs to be played delicately. I am enthused about playing this with a wonderful cellist as a prelude to our Maundy Thursday service. It is very meditative and will lend the right tone to the service. : )

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