Arvo Pärt is one of the most important living composers of concert music. His first works, dating from the 1950s, showed the influence of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, as heard in his two Sonatinas for piano (1958). But as his musical studies under Heino Eller continued, he was drawn toward serial techniques and turned out a number of works in the 1960s in this vein. His First Symphony (1961), for instance, displays this method and is dedicated to Eller. By the end of that decade, Pärt had become disenchanted by the 12-tone technique and began writing music in varying styles. In 1976, however, Pärt started composing in what he called his tintinnabulation (or tintinnabuli) method, which involves the constant presence throughout the work of a lone unchanging triad. This new style resulted in music so radically different from that which had preceded it, that many observed that it seemed to have come from a different hand altogether.
Unlike most composers of major rank, Pärt did not show remarkable talent in his childhood or even in his early adolescence. His first serious study came in 1954 at the Tallinn Music Middle School, but less than a year later he temporarily abandoned it to fulfill military service, playing oboe and percussion in the army band.
In 1957, Pärt enrolled at the Tallinn Conservatory where he studied under Eller. He graduated in 1963, having worked throughout his student years and afterward as a recording engineer for Estonian Radio. He wrote several film scores and other works during this period, among them his two Sonatinas for piano, from 1958, and Nekrolog, a serial work for orchestra, from 1960. He also wrote a number of choral pieces at this time, among which was the ethereal a cappella effort, Solfeggio (1964). Pärt continued to compose music mainly in the serial vein throughout the 1960s, but received little recognition, since that method of composition was generally anathema throughout the Soviet Union. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Pärt studied the music of Renaissance era composers, particularly that of Machaut, Josquin Desprez, and Obrecht. His Symphony No. 3 reflected these influences in its austere, Medieval sound world.
By the mid-1970s, Pärt was working on an altogether new style of composition. In 1976 he unveiled this method, the aforementioned tintinnabulation, with the piano work, Für Alina. A trio of more popular works followed in 1977, Fratres, for string quintet and wind quintet (later given additional arrangements by the composer), Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten (revised 1980) and Tabula Rasa, for two violins, prepared piano, and string orchestra. Owing to the continued political oppression he found in Estonia, Pärt and his wife and two sons emigrated to the West in 1980, settling first in Vienna, then in West Berlin.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Pärt, a devout member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, wrote a number of large-scale choral religious works, including the St. John Passion (1982), Magnificat (1989), The Beatitudes (1990), and Litany (1994). He has declared a preference for vocal music in his later years, and continues, like the English composer John Tavener, also an adherent of the Eastern Orthodox religion, to write much religious music.
In 1995, Pärt was recognized for his many artistic achievements by being elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He remains among the most popular serious composers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.