Piano Sonata No. 5 ‘Litany’ (2013) is inspired by the Litany of the Virgin Mary, a Catholic prayer usually recited at the end of the Rosary which contains various titles for the Virgin. Twelve titles have been chosen, and each movement is a reflection on each. The choice of twelve is not coincidental, and it alludes to the passage in the Book of Revelation where the author has a vision of ‘a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars’ (Rev, 12:1). In Catholic theology, his figure is associated with the Virgin Mary.
I – Speculum Iustitiae (Mirror of Justice)
The main motif that reappears throughout the sonata is the tone heard at the very beginning, which develops into a 4-note motif. The idea of mirroring is present in the use of imitation and inversion of the material. The piece slowly builds up, but the texture always remains crystal clear. At exactly halfway, the whole piece is inverted, until it is reduced to the opening tone, this time descending.
II – Sedes Sapientiae (Throne of Wisdom)
The idea of a tone is now enhanced with a double-dotted rhythmic figure. The figure is repeated over and over again, each time with increasing distance in between. The number of bars in between are derived from the Fibonacci series (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, etc) a series of numbers where every number is the sum of the previous two numbers. This idea is thus developed using a mathematical process, which process becomes a symbolic interpretation of ‘Wisdom’.
IIII – Causa nostrae laetitiae (Cause of our Joy)
This time, it is the semitone which forms the basic idea; the smallest possible interval on a piano. The opening interval also marks the exact half point on a keyboard on a standard piano. This slowly grows, and ‘causes’ the music to unfold. The major triad is heard repeatedly punctuated in various inversions as a symbol of Joy.
IV – Vas spirituale (Medium of Spirituality)
The number 7 holds the key to this movement, both in the time signature (7/4), the number of bars (sections of 7 bars each) and the basic interval of a 7th on which the piece is built. 7 is a number associated with the Holy Spirit, and Catholic doctrine identifies 7 gifts received from the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of Confirmation.
V – Rosa Mystica (Mystic Rose)
The rose is a flower with a very powerful symbolism, associated with love, and also with the Virgin Mary. The number 5 is the basis of this movement, derived from the 5-petal rose of heraldry. The right hand has a perpetuum mobile figure that changes by one note every 5 bars. Against this, a five note row in the other voice appear slowly, at pre-determined intervals. The result is an unfolding and closing of the ‘rose’. Listen to this movement here
VI – Turris eburnea (Ivory tower)
Before the term ‘ivory tower’ came to mean a state of seclusion, it was seen as an image of great beauty as well as fortitude. The piece uses only white notes (traditionally made of ivory) and is solely in the bass register to convey a sense of solidity and strength. It is constructed using simple triadic harmony, with a chorale-like texture.
VII – Domus aurea (Golden House)
The right hand unwinds a fast perpetuum mobile figure that represents the shimmer of gold. The left hand uses 79 notes from the Gregorian hymn Salve Regina, one of the oldest and most beautiful of Marian antiphons. The number 79 is the atomic weight of the element gold (Au).
VIII – Foederis arca (Ark of the Covenant)
The Arc of the Covenant is the receptacle which housed the Laws of Moses, and was the central object of worship at the Jerusalem temple for the Jews. The Virgin Mary is here described as the ‘container’ of the new Covenant (i.e. Christ). This piece dwells on the idea of childbirth, a slow and painful creative evolution. The dotted figure starts as a tone, then slowly extends until it maps out a major scale in A major.
IX – Janua coeli (Heaven’s Gate)
This piece is built on the augmented triad, where every interval is a major third. This chord has an open-ended sound that creates a celestial atmosphere. Through repetition of the chord on various transpositions, and displacement of time, the effect of a door slowly opening is created.
X – Stella Matutina (Morning Star)
The 6-pointed star is a common Marian symbol. The piece is divided into 6 segments (each relating to a segment of the star), with each segment containing an opening flourish followed by shimmering chords. The use of extended technique is there to help create a more scintillating texture.
XI – Consolatrix afflictorum (Comfort of the afflicted)
Simple triadic harmony is built on a descending chromatic bass, for centuries a musical device associated with sadness and pain. In between these chords the performer improvises simple ‘comforting’ melodic material. This brings in a personal element from the performer’s part, in keeping with the idea of the Litany as a personal act of devotion.
XII – Regine sine labe originalio concepta (Queen conceived without sin)
This movement brings together all the previous movements into one big hymn to the virgin. Every12 bars correspond to a movement, and the melodic material is thus related. The number 12 and the use of the tone (relating to the opening) are the most important elements of this piece, and all the previous symbolism is moulded together into the idea of the Virgin as a perfect and pure human being.
Piano Sonata No. 5 ‘Litany’ was premiered by Joanne Camilleri on 15th May 2014 at Sala Isouard, Teatru Manoel, Valletta.