Miserere: Arvo Pärt and the Medieval Present



This study explores a series of historical moments pertinent to Pärt’s Miserere – a work for soloists, chorus and instrumental ensemble that sets Psalm 50/51 and the thirteenth-century Dies irae hymn – in order to illustrate how the phenomenon of Pärt has energized a variety of medievalisms as both a practice and an ongoing mode of perception. Like so many of his other works, Miserere has been explicitly associated with the pre-modern past since its inception.

This type of question about Miserere resists a single approach. I focus on eight historical moments and their underlying tropes (Christianity, authority, introspection and purity) to synthesize and differentiate the ways in which Pärt’s music has been interpreted as a symbol of the medieval present. These moments include: (1976/1989) plainchant, origin stories, compositional process, (1989) the shadows of early music, Miserere premiere, early music ensembles, (1991) imprinting the medieval Pärt, (1993) ideologies of the medieval, (2005, 2012) Pärt and pre-Enlightenment theologies, (2011) Pärt’s medievalism and the moving image, (2013) virtual Miserere, (2015) models of theater. I explore these chronologically but do not assert their causality; many of them describe dynamics of cultural reception or compositional tendencies that are ongoing. I term my theoretical model for understanding Pärt’s multiple intersections with the past “third-space medievalism.” In Pärt’s case, this third-space is characterized by markers of sacred and secular, East/West and post ideology religion, Baltic and German historiography, and narratives of exile and return.


Miserere and the Medieval Present”
Royal Academy of Music / University of London
London; September, 2017


Dolp, Laura. “Miserere: Arvo Pärt and the Medieval Present.” Edited by Kirsten Yri and Stephen Meyer. In The Oxford Handbook of Music and Medievalism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2018.

Miserere: Arvo Pärt and the Medieval Present

Image credit: Marco Ventura, [detail] Arvo Pärt (2002, oil on wood), used by permission