Mr. Pärt’s fervor did not always work in his favor. He first made waves in the Estonian compositional world for “Nekrolog,” an orchestral work critiqued by Soviet censors for its 12-tone language. The 1968 premiere of “Credo,” his first overtly sacred piece, drew further negative attention. This time, it was not the music but the title that irritated the authorities: The religious message was interpreted as an act of political dissidence. (The music theorist Yuri Kholopov once remarked that “God and Jesus Christ were bigger enemies to the Soviet regime than Boulez or Webern.”)
Mr. Pärt was unofficially censured, his music disappearing from concert halls. In a radio interview the year of the “Credo” premiere, he attempted to voice his beliefs publicly. Questioned about his main influences, Mr. Pärt responded: “Of course, Christ. Because he solved his fraction perfectly, godly.” The section was edited out of the broadcast version, to avoid a government ban.
Following the “Credo” controversy, Mr. Pärt fell mostly silent. He converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1972 upon marrying his second wife, Nora. When he re-emerged in 1976, it was with the crystalline stillness of “Für Alina,” the first composition shaped by his tintinnabuli technique: a weaving-together of melodic lines in which one voice outlines a chord while the other circles around it.
It would be easy to view Mr. Pärt’s compositional arc as unique to his personal vision, but it was also in line with an international exodus from serialism that began in the mid-’60s, looking inward and backward. He pored over the writings of the early church, and immersed himself in medieval chant and Renaissance polyphony. The sparse, gothic music for which he is known emerged out of that period of study. Today, “Für Alina” and its complement “Spiegel im Spiegel” — ubiquitous from film soundtracks and as accompaniment for modern dancers — represent études in Minimalist technique that point toward more promising developments.