Arvo Pärt

léonie sonning music prize 2008

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize of 600,000 Danish kroner at a concert on Thursday 22 May 2008 at the Radio House Concert Hall in Copenhagen. The concert was broadcast live by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s P2 radio channel.

The prize was presented by Esben Tange, a member of the Léonie Sonning Music Foundation’s board. His personal address included the following comments:

‘Your music often aspires to a divine, imaginary world of beauty and harmony. But sometimes a dark abyss appears in the music. A catastrophe occurs and leaves deep scars – because there is a painful difference between the dreams we have about the world and the reality that surrounds us. That explains the title for one of your works, Lamentate. It is also why your music is more human than divine. Because even though it strives for the divine, it is freighted with the human condition.’


The Léonie Sonning Music Prize 2008, and 600,000 Danish kroner, is awarded to the composer Arvo Pärt, who over a period of decades has created works of remarkable beauty and spiritual power. Pärt is unique in having developed a musical voice in sympathy with the spiritual world of the Orthodox Church, built on the experiences of the old masters. Through his music, Pärt has reached a large audience and shown that art music can still produce moments of magic.’

Pärt originally declined to contribute to the prize concert with a new work commissioned by the Foundation. But a few months before the concert, he nonetheless composed an orchestral work titled These Words…

 The musical starting point for the score is an Orthodox prayer of the Guardian Angel, while the title is an allusion to Denmark, taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. ‘In the same way that the Queen in Shakespeare’s tragedy is shaken by her son’s revealing words, I am shaken by the words of the prayer I used as the basis for this piece,’ said Pärt at the Estonian premiere of the piece two months later.

Listen to the speeches from the concert


Arvo Pärt Fratres for viola and piano (1977)
Summa for choir (1977)
Psalom for string quartet (1985/91/97)
Solfeggio for choir (1964)
Da pacem Domine for string quartet (2004/06)
Nunc dimittis for choir (2001)
Spiegel im Spiegel for clarinet and piano (1978)
Miserere for soloists, choir, ensemble and organ (1989/92). First Danish performance.

Soloists: Else Torp, Iris Oja, Risto Joost, Adam Riis, Jacob Bloch Jespersen
Ars Nova Copenhagen
Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen
Conductor: Paul Hillier

Arvo Pärt in Denmark

Pärt was known and loved by the Danish public long before he received the music prize. In 2002, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation organized an Arvo Pärt festival in Copenhagen, and the composer was present when his Lamentate for piano and orchestra was performed by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and pianist Alexei Lubimov.

To coincide with the prize concert, Henrik Marstal’s book about Pärt, Længslen efter de hvide tangenter (‘The Longing for the White Keys’), was published. In addition, Dansk Musik Tidsskrift published a special issue focusing on Pärt and Dansk Danseteater performed Tim Rushton’s Labyrinth, choreographed to music by Pärt including his Spiegel im Spiegel.

Two days before the prize concert, on 20 May 2008, Ars Nova Copenhagen and Athelas Sinfonietta presented a concert at the Garrison Church in Copenhagen:


Arvo Pärt Fratres

Arvo Pärt Summa  

Arvo Pärt Psalom  

Arvo Pärt Solfeggio  

Arvo Pärt Da pacem Domine

Arvo Pärt Nunc dimittis 

Arvo Pärt Spiegel im Spiegel 

Arvo Pärt Miserere (Danish premiere)


Else Torp, Iris Oja, Risto Joost, Adam Riis, Jacob Bloch Jespersen (soloists)

Paul Hillier, conductor


The daily press wrote, among other things:

Much can be said of this year’s recipient of the 600,000 Danish kroner Léonie Sonning Music Prize, but he is a popular choice. The main concerts associated with the prize have been sold out for weeks. And the audience does not look like the audience that regularly comes to classical concerts. Pärt himself has called silence “more perfect than music,” and his music usually betrays the pace of scripture: slow, sober, word-for-word. In fact, his notes are reminiscent of Rome’s amazing palaces: they seem built according to a secret formula. The same size ratios fit the individual human being. Life doesn’t keep pace with quick thoughts, but with slow emotions…

(Søren Schauser, Berlingske Tidende, 23 May 2008)

An obviously moved Pärt walked on stage to receive the Sonning Music Prize. In a trembling voice, he thanked the prize committee for the nomination before positioning himself back behind the music. “The composer is not an exceptional being, his work is always bigger, and the magic only happens when that work rises above the composer and frees itself,” he said humbly but with pride. The concert culminated in the evening’s most spectacular work for large orchestra and choir In Principio, setting a text from St John’s Gospel. Tõnu Kaljuste engendered a particular tightness between the choral and orchestral sounds. His sense for highlighting detail carried the work and made it balance. The quiet moments embraced us.

(Christine Christiansen, Information, 24 May 2008)


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