Mariel Versluis, "Autumn Field," Color Reduction Woodcut, ©1999
Notes on Piano Sonata No. 19 (Mystical Sonata)

Paul Wesley Hofreiter


During the summer of 1996, I was visited by a sweeping burst of creative inspiration, the result of which was a series of three extensive multi-movement piano sonatas: the Sonata No. 17, subtitled Cherbourg, [1]  Sonata No. 18, subtitled Romantic, [2] and Sonata No. 19, subtitled Mystical.[3] While each of these sonatas contains some element of mysticism within,[4] in the latter work, I actually define the mystical existence (note that I did not write experience) by use of several compositional techniques, the most prevalent being mirror technique (where the movement of one hand reflects the movement of the other, but in the opposite direction). These two parts occasionally, and more frequently (as the piece progresses) meet in the middle, on a unison (the same pitch from both hands). This "middle" is the realm of the combination of the spiritual and physical planes of existence. In the third and final movement of the sonata, the entire movement is built harmonically and melodically on the basis of this mirror. However, in this final movement, the language is entirely diatonic, using only the white keys of the piano, and the paradox becomes more evident . . . as one hand plays in a minor mode, the other plays in a major mode . . . but the two together create a brand new mode, if you will, that of the essence of mysticism. This is only one way I have incorporated techniques into musical form as musical metaphor for mysticism. In a concerto for flute, clarinet, two violins and orchestra that was premiered in 1995, there are distinct places where silence is incorporated within the movement of the music itself. In my Piano Sonata No. 20 (composed in just three days this past August on an inspirational flow unprecedented in my creative output), the use of



repetition and silence delineates the mystical existence in the midst of an increasingly frenzied musical dialogue between the two hands of the pianist as well as defining the musical structure of the piece.

When I composed these three sonatas, I was not aware that each work I was composing was working "from the outside in," or from the exoteric to the esoteric. Each of the three works represented aspects of my existence as a husband, father, composer, and teacher. More specifically, the three are dedicated to my wife Janice, and I presented the three works in a concert entitled "To My Wife" the following October that year. 

The Inner Meaning of the Sonata

From an esoteric Christian perspective, the Mystical Sonata draws the listener into the inner world of relationship both at the horizontal and vertical levels. The doctrine of correspondences is applicable in much of the piece for heaven and earth are reflected as one unity whether the music meets in the middle or is expanded in opposite directions. Most importantly, I view the union between God and humanity as represented in this compositional gesture and, because of this connection, the union between two individuals, in this case my wife and me, is offered in musical metaphor. The union reflected in the closing of Genesis 2 [5], the entire book of the Song of Solomon [6], and Jesus' prayer of unity in John 17 are all intimated in this music. However, Jesus' sayings in Matthew 18 [7], and the Gospel of Thomas Saying 2 [8] are intimated as well. Perhaps the lullaby-like tone of the second movement and the predominance of playfulness in the third movement (as a mystical dance) were the results of such realities for me. While they are certainly connected with my memories of our son, Paul Christoph, when he was a little child, they are no mere nostalgic wanderings. 

From G. Battista Nazari, Della Tramutatione metallica sogni tre (Brescia: 1599)

In fact, they represent the present reality of the mystical existence, just as holy desire is a present reality in terms of the unity between my wife and me as reflection of God's desire for us and our desire for God [9] in the Romantic Sonata. But here, in the Mystical Sonata, that love is the central spiritual core uniting husband and wife, the most profound spiritual union possible. The "split-apart" is made one again, entering into its original spiritual state.

Thus, the Mystical Sonata represents all facets of human and divine love possible between husband and wife . . . a childlike playfulness; tender adoration, unconditional devotion, romantic longing and fulfillment, and, ultimately, spiritual union, all possible because these are inherent within the godhead itself. 

The Formal Structure of the Sonata

The first movement of the Mystical Sonata, in standard sonata-allegro form (exposition/development/recapitulation), begins with a main theme containing mixed meter signatures (no steady sense of pulse . . . implying timelessness) and a mirrored left hand reflecting the melody in the opposite direction. Despite the shifting of meters, however, the sonata is inherently dance-like throughout, and this movement contrasts between a subtle playfulness in its opening theme and a tender peacefulness in the second theme. Contained between these statements are bursts of spiritual energy as the material is developed. In contrast, one may discern attempts from the world of the status quo to interrupt and destroy the spiritual and mystical inclinations proffered. One may even hear a quasi-drumbeat pulsating now and then, signifying a war of the physical world attempting to obliterate existence in the spiritual realm. The movement finally ends in a state of suspended animation.

The introduction and coda of the second movement are a direct

retrograde of each other, as though one is being drawn into the world of the "child" from the suspended animation of the first movement. The lullaby theme is stated in simplicity several times with extended interludes between each subsequent statement. At the end of the lullaby, one is escorted out of the movement with the "child" intact, ready to "play" in the mystical dance of the third movement, as the listener becomes aware that the tones that conclude the movement are that of the lullaby theme. Thus, the opening retrograde is the lullaby theme in reverse as it compels the listener to enter this realm of mystical existence.

The third movement is in rondo form. The music in this movement is pandiatonic due to the use of mirror technique restricted solely to the white keys of the piano. As stated above in the introduction, the two separate modes of each hand combine to create a new mode, that which is essentially mystical. Between each statement of the main theme are interjections that contrast with the theme. In some cases one discovers the repetition of rhythmic and melodic patterns; in others, one discerns a slowing down of the harmonic motion. There is even a brief chorale-like statement before the final statement of the theme; but it is important to keep in mind that even this "chorale" employs strict mirror technique. Significant here the only place where the music may sound "religious" in the traditional sense is the fact that the doctrine of correspondences is still in effect even when offering a chorale to the musical texture. This chorale is as much a part of earth as it is part of heaven. Finally, as the movement arrives toward its conclusion, the main theme is stated one final time, this time in the uppermost register of the piano, propelling the listener into the heavenly realms where the dance lasts forever.

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1 Composed 18-24 June 1996.

2 Composed 3-8 July 1996.

3 Composed 12-19 July 1996.

4 The compositional process in these three works was decidedly mystical. There were instances of spontaneity where an entire movement would manifest itself in just a matter of minutes. There was also a visitation during the composition of Sonata No. 17. As I began composing the slow movement for that work, I felt the touch of my father who had died over four years before. I was immersed so remarkably in the fire of inspiration, I did not even realize that it was his birthday at the time I was composing this slow movement. For the first time in my life, I understood what Elliot Carter meant when he wrote:

"I have a feeling that somehow there are these shadowy things behind me, these compositions, which are in a way not me, myself; really, they deserve the [credit] and not me. They have this strange life; I'm not sure that I invented them. These strange beings began to come to my mind and gradually somehow insisted on being written in their strange and unusual way . . . I was just sort of  something that wrote them down, because they were rather trying and sometimes difficult and demanding. And sometimes they did things I have never done before and made me do things that bothered me and upset me and sometimes excited me and puzzled me, too, sometimes." (from Joscelyn Godwin's Harmonies of Heaven and Earth : Mysticism in Music from Antiquity to the Avant-Garde, Inner Traditions, 1995) 

Since that day of visitation, I have had more and more experience with these "entities" which seem to have a life of their own, most recently in the case of the Sonata No. 20 mentioned above.

5 " . . . they shall become one flesh . . ."

6 Particularly " . . . let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth — for your love is better than wine . . ." (1:2); " . . . my beloved is mine and I am his . . ." (2:16); and " . . . for love is as strong as death . . ." (8:6).

7 " . . . unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven . . ."

8 " . . . But the kingdom is within you and outside you."

9 The Romantic Sonata essentially reflects the notion of holy desire throughout its three movements. Romantic physical love in its purest and holiest sense reflects God's love. The Mystical Sonata represents the totally spiritual love extant between two lovers.