Litany to the Virgin Mary for solo soprano, female choir and orchestra op. 59 (1930-1933)

Anna Iwaszkiewiczowa, to whom the poet Jerzy Liebert dedicated his poem Litania do Najświętszej Marii Panny [Litany to the Holy Virgin Mary], suggested the text to Szymanowski. With unerring intuition, out of the poem’s seventeen stanzas the composer selected the third and the sixth, which concentrate the purest poetry and whose poetic images are the simplest. The first fragment is entitled Twelve-note zither…; the second – Like a dwarf bush… The litany is short, but the score, which numbers more than ten pages, bears all the characteristic and typical features of Szymanowski’s style and technique. It is characterised by maximally condensed expression, concentration and inner silence. This effect is achieved by a far-advanced reduction of devices. Undoubtedly in its deepest expression this work is akin to Stabat Mater; however, what is particularly interesting is that Szymanowski seems to refer here to his experiences from the so-called impressionistic period of his development. The timbral concept of the work provides evidence of this, being based on texture, orchestration and dynamics made cohesive in an individual way. The fully mechanical “backbone” of the form is of course the text – the stanza is repeated three, or nearly three, times. But in the first fragment the decisive formative factor is the dynamics. The music here is extremely muted, with a delicate and pastel sonorities from the initial ppp to the culminative f and again to ppp. The second fragment has a quite clear three-part repetitive structure (ABA) and is based on very homogeneous melodic material. Szymanowski paid particularly detailed attention to the solo voice part. His consultant was the unfailing performer of her brother’s songs – Stanisława Szymanowska. “It would be a good thing to go through these fragments from Litany together; this seems quite difficult – perhaps something might be changed.” The composer’s judgment about his work was not always objective and unbiased but this time, judging Litany from the perspective of time, he was right. Writing to friends, Szymanowski said: “…this may be the deepest, the most intent thing of mine;” “Litany is very successful – it stands at the level of Stabat Mater“.