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Composed in 1986, Festina lente received its title from the oxymoron “make haste slowly”, which was used by several figures in history, among them Augustus, the creator and first emperor of the Roman Empire. The title makes a coded reference to the form as well as the meaning of the composition. The work is composed following the principle of a proportional canon: three instrument groups (first and second violins; violas; cellos and double basses) start at the same time but play the melody at three different speeds. The fastest of the melodies is repeated seven times. After a short coda, the music fades into silence. Leopold Brauneiss, musicologist and researcher of Pärt’s music, has said: “The proverbial title Festina lente (Make haste slowly), on the other hand, points towards the paradoxical time structure of the proportional canon: as the melody proceeds fast and slow at the same time, the fastest voice always sounds at the same time as its own stretched past.”
The composition is dedicated to Manfred Eicher, the founder and leader of the ECM record company with whom Pärt has collaborated since the release of his Tabula rasa in 1984, which became the first album in the ECM New Series. Its tremendous success brought many listeners around the world to Pärt’s music. Since this debut album, all the first recordings of Pärt’s main works have been released in this series.
Festina lente premiered on 17 November 1986 in Paris, performed by the Music Projects London orchestra conducted by Richard Bernas. After several revisions over the years, the final version of the work was released by ECM on the album Miserere, recorded by the Beethoven Orchester Bonn with the conductor Dennis Russell Davies.