Brilliant Songs #44: Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel”

One plink of a C note on the piano, followed quickly up the scale by an F and then A note to complete a lovely little triad one could teach a child in a moment or two. Then a repeat, after which the left hand descends to a note on the lower register, and, depending on the particular arrangement, a violin, cello, or other accompanist joins in to commence one of the most contemplative pieces of music ever offered up to human ears.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” translates as “Mirror(s) in the Mirror,” suggesting an endless reflection of images, the triad of the initial notes forming a foundation that seems to stretch out and carry listeners along to infinity. (Well, the piece runs about 10 minutes in most iterations, but the dreamscape one descends into from the opening notes feels like the tiniest pebble dropped into a still pond, its ripples going gently round and round the world, forever…)

It’s easy to imagine playing it to calm a fussy baby, and equally to a dying loved one, fortified for their journey beyond.

The result is an achingly beautiful meditative piece that is “spiritual” in the very best sense of that term, replete with tenderness and love, no matter your religion or lack thereof, your nationality, your race or preferred musical genre.

It’s easy to imagine playing it to calm a fussy baby, and equally to a dying loved one, fortified for their journey beyond.

And therefore, a fitting way to end this and any other year, with the faith that whatever the world’s travails, beauty abides, in art, in nature, and certainly, resoundingly, in the vast depths of the human heart.



Pärt composed “Spiegel im Spiegel” in 1978, at age 33. Two years later, unrelenting pressure from his country’s longtime occupiers of the former Soviet Union compelled his emigration with his wife Nora, first to Vienna and then to Berlin a year later.

The Soviets’ default mode of looking askance at the penchant for free expression common to most artists combined with Pärt’s overt Christian religiosity to see various of his works banned as being “susceptible to foreign influences” over the years.

Fortunately, he did not suffer the fate of countless other artists, activists and intellectuals who continue to this day to be sent to distant gulags in Russia.

Arvo Pärt

Highly productive and honored the world over through his years as an ex-pat, he returned to the eventually free and democratic Estonia in 2010, nearly 20 years after it declared its independence from Russia and later attained membership in the European Union and NATO.

The paradox of the artistic “minimalism” that typifies the now 88-year-old Pärt’s work is that far from it suggesting “not much there,” it fills the listener with feelings that reach the very depths of human emotion.

One perceives this within mere seconds in “Spiegel im Spiegel,” as the first distinct notes ring out like little bells, inviting and enfolding us within a loving musical embrace. Pärt’s genius springs from his no doubt hard-won ability to employ highly technical music theory in the service of a deceptively simple, crystalline composition.

He dubbed his particular technique “tintinnabulum,” which he has now followed for more than 40 years and has heavily influenced contemporary classical composers. It involves precise mathematical formulas that seek to concentrate all musical elements into a unified, pared down whole, serving what the European music website Music in Movement refers to as “the composer’s special relationship to silence.”

That silence, a clear outgrowth of Pärt’s longtime immersion in the great Christian mystics and sacred chant music, also manages to speak soothingly to attentive listeners. “Come,” it says. “Take rest. Go as deep as you like. No compulsion, just a gentle invitation to explore the essence of Being itself, calm, quiet and unadorned.”


Many iterations and instrumental variations of “Spiegel im Spiegel” grace the musical landscape, this piano and cello duet being my own favorite. The work’s spiritual core shines resplendently throughout, expressed not only by the principal musicians, but also by the solemn bearing of their musical colleagues attending every note.


And the original version, about three minutes shorter, with Russian violinist Vladimir Spivakov, for whom Pärt wrote and dedicated the piece…


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Cloudscape by Tomasz Sroka, Poland

Arvo Pärt portrait by Mait Jüriado, Tallinn, Estonia 

6 comments to Brilliant Songs #44: Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel”

  • Kirk  says:

    Hey Andrew, Thanks for the blood pressure medicine. I have heard this beautiful piece at a funeral once and actually went up to the musicians and asked about it as it brought me to tears. It will now be my go to bedtime sleep regimen. The cello version is so much better than the violin version. A nice contrast to my wake up Thunderstruck alarm song.

  • Marianne Sonntag  says:

    After reading your description of this composition and its creator, I listened and was transported to that spiritual place, responding with chills within the first 10 seconds. Thank you so much for this gift of art and beauty to help balance all the “rough stuff” out there, assaulting our senses. In regarding it as an accompaniment to the end of life journey is all too apropos for the overwhelming loss of life, these days more of the violent kind than the gentle. My heart aches for the overflowing grief of those who suffer. And then, I remember last night when I listened to an episode of Anderson Cooper’s podcast conversation with Steven Colbert, The Gift of Grief.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I’ve always felt Arvo Pärt’s compositions, even though they’re among the most assigned contemporary selections in classical concerts, deserve even more play time now in a world so consumed by angst, anger and animosity. Their meditative and spiritual sound is calming. I know I need that! The included excerpt from “Spiegel im Spiegel” for piano and cello exquisitely fosters a mood of sacred quietness; what better instrument to create it than a cello? It exudes mournfulness. Yo-Yo Ma chose Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Sarabande” (suite for a cello solo) at the Ground Zero service commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11. If you haven’t heard it before, it’s a must listen to. Your words (“the tiniest pebble dropped into a still pond, its ripples going gently round and round the world…) describing “Spiegel im Spiegel” deserve mention, too. Like a mirror, they reflect serene solitude. Its C-F-A ascending chord progression (low to high notes) is the perfect pebble. Brilliant choice to welcome in the New Year and my birthday!

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Kirk, I agree the cello version is more affecting with this singular piece than is the violin; I think Robert’s comment below about the cello being simply more suited to the subject matter is in line with what we experienced as well. Interesting you became acquainted with the work at a funeral, where it indeed seems to fit perfectly, but now I’m wondering with as many funerals/memorials I’ve been to, why I’ve never heard it in that setting before!

    Marianne, thanks for the tip on the Cooper-Colbert interview, I shall go in search of it. And for checking in here on the occasions that you do. Much appreciated!

    Robert, yes, I’m familiar with the Bach Sarabande and figure the Pärt was probably on Yo-Yo Ma’s short list for the Ground Zero service. Both of a soul depth that would meet such an occasion; thanks for citing it here, and for your kind words for the rest of this post. And Happy Birthday, my man!

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Perfect gift as a new year approaches. I too loved them both, but the cello version swept me away! I was also mesmerized by the pianist’s left hand as it seemed to be rising at its own meditative pace to flow along providing punctuation to the right hand’s steady rhythm… all of which provides the context for the soulful cello – oh my my! I couldn’t help but think of the NYT piece today by Nick Kristoff reminding us that in all the senseless war & chaos, 2023 registered all-time lows for both child mortality and extreme poverty… the yin & yang of our lives keep rolling. Thanks for another great post in a year of many excellent ones!!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I was quite taken by the pianist’s left hand as well, Kevin, the way it arced, hung there suspended for a moment, then came down almost feather-like onto the key. It seemed so in keeping with the whole mood of the piece, perfectly executed, not an extra note or decibel more than strictly necessary.

      And thanks for the note on Kristof’s column, which I likely would have missed but is such important reading for this time of year. We need voices and perspectives like his, not merely exhortational but data-driven as well. If we’re going to “follow the science,” we need to follow ALL the science, not just when it accords with our own views, fears and biases. So Happy New Year, and here’s to swinging wide around dejection and doldrums as we look down the barrel of what will surely be a momentous year.

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