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A Model Review – Br Brad Elliot OP on the Music of Frank La Rocca

Here is a review of a selection of Frank La Rocca’s compositions called In This Place, written by Br Brad T. Elliot OP; it appeared first, in slightly altered form, on page 49 of the Fall 2015 edition of Sacred Music, the journal of the CMAA.

I have only just seen this, but I thought to bring it to your attention for a couple of reasons, the first being that I think that Frank La Rocca’s work deserves to get more attention.

The second reason is that the principles by which the reviewer judges the merit of La Rocca’s works are themselves worthy of study. Br Brad Elliot, who is a Dominican of the Western Province of the United States, has a good grasp of music theory (way beyond my own) and of the principles of sacred music. He brings his knowledge of both into the discussion. As such, in this short piece, I feel he outlines succinctly a guide for patrons, composers, and for the judgment of such compositions, in accord with general principles are applicable in all the creative arts.

Br Brad explains very well why it is imperative that we always have new compositions to breathe life into any artistic tradition. No tradition can rely on a canon of past works alone; without continuing creativity, it will cease to engage new people and become dead. As he puts it:

Simply put, the giving over or tradere of the past into the future must pass through the present as a necessary middle term; the present is where the real tradition takes place.

He stresses also the importance of exploring modern forms of music, as he says:

…modern harmony should not be feared as a threat to sacred beauty.

But he is quick to point out that such exploration can never be used as a reason for compromising the essential principles of sacred music.

Is Frank La Rocca’s music doing this? Perhaps. I think so, and Br Brad thinks so. But we must be clear that fulfillment of the criteria that Br Brad lays down is not the only requirement. In the end, it has to appeal at a natural level to many people as well. This is the great challenge to the artist in any field, and the mark of true creativity. Neither Br Brad nor myself are the final arbiters of taste and so the final test of its goodness is not if he or I like it, but its popularity. If it is good, it will be performed, and congregations will be drawn to it. And only time can tell us this in regard to Frank La Rocca’s or any other composer’s music. You can decide for your self by listening to his work. Here is his O Magnum Mysterium.

We ought to encourage the continued creativity of people who understand the principles of sacred music and modern music, and are prepared to take that great risk in looking for ways of combining the two. Frank La Rocca looks to the incorporation of modern classical forms. This is not the only area of modern music in which people can look for inspiration, but whatever approach is taken, it has to be done with the dedication and respect for tradition with which we see from Frank and a few others. (Another example is my colleague on this blog, Peter Kwasniewski). The more people who are doing so, the more likely it is that the sacred musical form of today will break out of the esoteric circle of those who are deeply interested in such things and emerge as a new, popular and noble form. The music that does this will characterize our age when future generations look back at the early 21st century.

Someone once tried to persuade me that I should appreciate the highly dissonant classical music of the 20th century with the absurd opening argument that “modern music isn’t as bad as it sounds.” While there is always a place for guiding people into an appreciation of what is good, if we have to persuade people that they ought to like something, we have failed.

Thoughtful criticism that highlights what is good is as necessary to the process of cultural transformation as the work of the creative artist. I think both Br Brad Elliot and Frank La Rocca are showing us the path by which we can succeed (not forgetting Sacred Music which prints the review of course!)

The Fall edition of Sacred Music has just appeared online, so you can read the review in the journal, here. Alternatively, I reproduce it here with permission:

Composers of sacred music are in a precarious position in today’s world; in many ways, they are a dying breed. On the one hand, they find themselves competing with an aesthetic of the past, as so many in their audience are driven by a nostalgia for a form and harmony indicative of music centuries-old. On the other hand, they are immersed in a post-modern world that has all but forgotten the very natural laws of beauty, the very symmetry, proportion, and order imbued in creation that any authentic imitation of that creation – the ancient notion of art – should reflect. The contemporary composer of sacred music seems to be straddling two incommensurable worlds. How is he to be faithful to the tradition by assimilating its rich vocabulary, and yet express this vocabulary and pass it on to a post-modern world that has all but revolted against that language?

The tension between purist and progressive is deeply felt by the sacred music composer. The Christian audience in today’s world inevitably defaults to equating a sacred aesthetic with an ancient or an old aesthetic, and this antiquity tends to become more and more idealized as it fades into a past known only through the frozen images of paintings or the archaic prose of worn books. Yet if the tradition of sacred music is to be handed on at all, if it is to be a true tradition –tradere – or giving over of something, it cannot remain in the idealized past. After all, sacred music is not a mere platonic universal floating in a world of ideas; it must be instantiated in a present particular work, that is, a piece of music that contains all the individuality and unrepeatable character of any other. If the tradition of sacred music is to be known, it must be incarnated in the here-and-now, given flesh and matter through some distinct composition. Simply put, the giving over or tradere of the past into the future must pass through the present as a necessary middle term; the present is where the real tradition takes place.

But here is precisely the dilemma; if any particular composition is to be a true giving over of something and not a mere replica of the past, than this work will naturally embody the character of the present time. The harmony, feel, texture, and aesthetic of the contemporary world will serve as the matter out of which the tradition again takes flesh. But can contemporary music actually provide a sufficient matter for a true expression of the sacred? Has the twentieth century, and now the twenty-first, provided a musical language with which the tradition can again be spoken? Or would not modern harmony, with its dissonance and atonality, compromise the sacred to an unrecognizable degree? Unfortunately, many answer this last question with a simple “yes.” This is the nature of the tension that composers know all too well.

For the past twenty years I have been a lover of sacred music, both its history and contemporary trends, and I have grown accustomed to this tension. I confess that, for much of my life I would have, like the many mentioned above, simply denied that the modern aesthetic could ever express the transcendence which is the hallmark of sacred music. As easy as it may be to succumb to this doubt given the pervasive banality of so much contemporary music, every so often a composer emerges who provides the needed exception to this presumed distrust, a composer who fully embraces contemporary forms of structure and harmony and yet still remains rooted in the sacred tradition. The composer Frank La Rocca has again provided this welcomed exception and the album In This Place is proof that an artist fully immersed in twentieth-century music can again speak the language of the sacred musical tradition to contemporary ears in a way that is understandable and attractive.

The album In This Place is unquestionably a work born from Catholic Christian spirituality with six of the eight compositions as settings of biblical or liturgical texts. From the opening, O Magnum Mysterium, a setting of the responsorial chant of Matins of Christmas, to the closing Credo, a setting of the Latin text of the Nicene Creed, the album is an explicit expression, in music, of the faith of the historic Christian Church. There is Expectavi Dominum with text from Psalm 40, Miserere with text of King David’s great prayer of repentance in Psalm 51, the Pentecost Sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus, and the famous prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas, O Sacrum Convivium. In addition to these vocal works, there is a piano work entitled Meditation, and an instrumental chamber work, In This Place, from which the album gets its name.

The entire album is a kaleidoscope of colors, textures, and moods where, like the psalms and liturgical prayers themselves, the full spectrum of human emotion is embraced and felt. La Rocca is undoubtedly adept at composing with the dissonance and set-harmony of twentieth-century music fully playing with all its qualities, and yet the album touches tonal harmony at every turn. As one listens from start to finish, the composer takes the listener on a journey through both the traditional narrative-like tension/release of tonal harmony and the persistent chromatics of the modern era. In a sense, La Rocca pulls the best from both worlds and weaves them together into his own distinctive voice. While the influence of Renaissance composers like Orlande de Lassus and William Byrd may be heard, particularly in the choral works, the influence of twentieth-century composers is evident. One can hear the harmonic sharpness and rhythmic agility of Stravinsky as well as the mystical naturalism of Mahler. Far from being a patch-like jumble of the old and the new, it is an authentic blending in the truest sense of the word. Any lover of twentieth-century music will find in La Rocca a composer who fully understands his taste. Nonetheless, through these works, the lover of traditional sacred music will also hear, echoing as from the past into the present, a true icon of holy transcendence once again instantiated in the present.

The blending of old and new elements is best seen in La Rocca’s use of old church modes. Traditional modal harmony is present in much of the album yet the composer never compromises its contemporary feel. For example, Veni Sancte Spiritus, for soprano voice and chamber ensemble, is composed in the Aeolian mode. The piece remains rooted in the church mode from beginning to end and yet, by exploring the range of intervals imbedded therein, La Rocca is able to extract gradations of dissonance and consonance that one would not expect. In modern fashion, the composition is held together by an angular motif, a succession of open ascending intervals that is heard from both voice and instrument. While a calm melancholic feel pervades, there is also expressed a subtle note of hope and expectancy so appropriate for the text of the Veni Sancte Spiritus which begins, “Come, Holy Spirit, and from your celestial home radiate divine light.”

Similarly, the title track of the album, In This Place is also composed in the Aeolian mode. The composition, a solely instrumental work, is passionately mournful with an interplay between reed and string that is eerily prayer-like. La Rocca creates this mood, not only through harmonic dissonance, but also through taking advantage of the biting tambour of string and reed. There is a deep introspective element to the work reminiscent of the art songs of Mahler.

The Credo is, as one might expect, most reflective of traditional forms. The influence of Gregorian chant can be heard in the opening phrase yet the music quickly expands to the use of counterpoint indicative of Renaissance polyphony. It is an experiment in the balance and contrast that may be achieved when music suitable for liturgy is combined with more modern concert forms. The settings of the psalms, Expectavi Dominum and Miserere, likewise harken back to an earlier polyphonic style but utilize modern harmonic colors to punctuate the biblical text. For example, Expectavi Dominum, the text of Psalm 40 which begins “I waited patiently for the Lord,” highlights the ache of this waiting by opening with the unconventional dissonance of a minor second. Miserere is, like the text of Psalm 51 itself, a musical journey from the bitterness of contrition, through the pain of repentance, and finally to the tranquility that accompanies faith in the Lord’s mercy. The music first expresses, through minor modes and dissonance, the sadness and gravity of King David’s confrontation with the horror of his own sin. But then as the text “cor mundum crea in me, Deus” is sung (create in me a clean heart O God), the music transforms into a joyful, restful praise of God. Following the biblical text, the music begins with mourning and anguish but ends in a musical Sabbath-rest.

A particularly noteworthy piece is the sixth track on the album, O Sacrum Convivium. This is a setting of the prayer composed by St. Thomas Aquinas in praise of the Holy Eucharist and, like the rest of the album, it is a hauntingly beautiful blend of classic and contemporary elements. The work most reveals the influence that English Renaissance polyphony, particularly that of William Byrd, has had on La Rocca’s choral style. Of all the compositions, it contains the most triadic harmony and best represents traditional polyphonic structure. A classical yet unexpected opening occurs when the bass, tenor, alto, and soprano each respectively state the opening melody in ascending sequence. However, these ascending statements are not removed by a perfect fifth as one would traditionally expect, rather, they are each removed by a perfect fourth giving the opening a suspended and otherworldly feel most fitting for the text of the prayer. The polyphonic chant is interrupted by a recurring motif, arresting of the attention with its dense chromatic clusters, that emphasizes the theologically rich texts “in quo Christus sumitur” (in which Christ is received) and “mens impletur gratia” (the mind is filled with grace).

The album as a whole is a courageous blend of styles and genres that is atypical for the fractioned world of modern music. Thus, it bears a confidence that is only born of years of artistic maturity. The sheer variety of the album pays testament to the diversity of influences that have shaped the composer’s ear and, what is more, pays greater testament to a composer who has himself wrestled with the interplay between these influences and has emerged from the battle. All lovers of sacred music wearied by the divide between the traditional and modern aesthetic will find happy repose in the album In This Place. Its varied collection hints that La Rocca has gone before us through this divide and is now giving to others the fruits of his own musical and spiritual journey.

Indeed, modern harmony should not be feared as a threat to sacred beauty. In This Place is proof of this. For sacred beauty, like God Himself, is timeless; no age can claim Him as its own. Beauty, wherever it is found, may be used as an icon of God’s holy presence, and the composer Frank La Rocca has again given the world a fresh example of this truth. The album In This Place, far from being a mere restatement of the old, is a new instantiation of the tradition of sacred music in our own time. Far from re-creating the past, La Rocca speaks the tradition with his own musical voice. I encourage all lovers of music to invest time in listening to his work. It is time well spent.


Seeing God in Bronze and Clay

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Interview with Sacred Artist Thomas Marsh

By Dr. Carrie Gress

For sculptor and painter Thomas Marsh sacred art doesn’t need to fall into the trap of religious kitsch or modernist fads. From Santa Cruz to Washington, D.C., Marsh’s work can be seen in churches, monasteries, monuments and memorials.

Trained in the realist school of painting and sculpture, Marsh works to capture something unique about the human spirit that conjures up something deeper in the soul than novelty or saccharine sentimentality. Through his work of both the sacred and secular, Marsh is trying to capture a type of contemplation akin to prayer.

I spoke with Marsh about his realist training and its evangelizing potential.


Gress: You are a sculptor, specializing in sacred art. What led you to this vocation?

Marsh: My love of sculpting the figure goes back to childhood, at about age 8, when I borrowed some plastilina clay from my sister who was a college art student at the time. I made a number of character studies simply because it was fascinating.

I didn’t consciously focus on being a sculptor as my vocation until I was 18 and had just enrolled as an architecture student at Iowa State University. I took as many art classes as ISU had to offer taken mostly through the Architecture Department which, fortunately, had not abandoned classical principles of training in realism in their drawing classes.

I then transferred to a small, private, heavily endowed art school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Layton School of Art, and earned a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Painting in 1974. As was the case with the Architecture Department at ISU, the Painting Department at Layton maintained a high degree of classical training, where the Sculpture Department did not. However, I was blessed to be given the use of a professional sculpture studio (the sculptor had recently passed away) so at ages 21-23 I had a marvelous, private, professional studio for my sculpture work.

From 1974-77 I studied sculpture at California State University, Long Beach, where I received my Master of Fine Arts in sculpture. Through my graduate professors I had direct artistic genealogical links to Ivan Mestrovic and Rodin. After receiving my MFA, I became the apprentice to the modern figurative master Milton Hebald for a year in Italy. The time spent in Italy, many trips since, has been deeply formative of my love for great Christian art.


Gress: How did you go about following your passion for art and the beautiful?

Marsh: “Art” and “the beautiful” are not synonymous, since one is human action producing a creative structure with aesthetic attributes, for the perceiver’s aesthetic experience; and the other, the concept of “beauty” or  “the beautiful” is a principle, a universal in the world of the spirit, which is no less real than the material.

My passions for each are inextricably intertwined. From that early childhood love of sculpting the figure, my passion for beauty in art evolved as my level of aesthetic understanding grew.

Looking back, it felt more as if my passion had been “drawn out” or “pulled out” by the great universal principles of art, such as, form, representation, complexity, emotional intensity, and beauty… rather than my having “followed my passion.”

Gress: Do you consider your work to be evangelical?

Marsh: Yes, I pray to God that my work is evangelical! In 1987, I gave a public lecture at the University of San Francisco titled “Figurative Art and the Human Spirit.” In it, I outlined my theory that the era of modernism in art was dying or even effectively dead. History has to a large extent, borne out that prediction.

My reasoning was and is as follows: expression theory is the intellectual foundation of modernism. Put simply, that means that the idea or concept of the work of art, its “expression,” is more significant than the attributes of the work of art itself. In order to aesthetically evaluate works of art based on their ideas alone, there is no fundamental criterion for aesthetic value, except “the new.” Hence, we witnessed the ever faster spiraling of art movements for most of a century. But this spiral eventually negated itself, when the “new” became tedious: it was no longer shocking or novel or exciting.


I predicted that a different, though not new, dominant role for art in human life would emerge: art as a vehicle for personal and social transformation. This transition from modernism based on expression theory to art as a vehicle for transformation is still in process, and is quite visible now. The mainstream art world, including major museums, serious galleries, and art critics in major publications, still holds fast to the modernist premise. But it’s clear that their citadel is crumbling, and that now the dominant role of art in human life is art as a vehicle for personal and social transformation.

Art in the service of evangelization is certainly transformative art! On a very particular level in visual art, my own work attempts to embody the work of art with forms that facilitate heightened awareness of our human spirit, or personhood. It is this experience of personhood that is the manifestation of the soul in human earthly life. My work is evangelical even beyond literal representations of Biblical figures because the human figure in art has the capacity to draw us into this experience, and such experience, as a parallel to prayer, has the power to draw us closer to God.

I also have done secular work all my life as a sculptor, painter, and drawer. Even secular work, such as the surfing monument in the Santa Cruz, California or the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C., or (especially) portrait work, has the capacity to bring us closer to God.

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Gress: What have been some of your recent projects?

Marsh: In 2013, I completed a St. Joseph, Patron of the Unborn figure for St. Vincent’s Hospital in Orange Park, Florida near Jacksonville. This is a small healing shrine, though the figure is life size, in the vestibule of the Chapel at the hospital. It is meant to facilitate the prayers for and about those women who have had abortions, or who have suffered miscarriages. It is patterned after a larger version of this same concept, installed on the grounds of the Oblates of St. Joseph in Santa Cruz, CA in 2001.

In 2014, I completed two castings of a work, St. Joseph, Protector of Preachers, one in bronze for the Priory of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, and one in gypsum cement casting for the interior entrance to the church. This work has a narrative dimension, and at the same time facilitates our human spirit experience through the stylistic character of my figures. St. Joseph, and a dog – these are the Dominicans!

I am poised to begin a major work: a Marian Rosary Prayer Walk which integrates a larger than life figure of Mary and a 75’ long landscaped rosary prayer walk.

Gress: Your work, particularly when it comes to Christ and the angels, offers a very lifelike representation emphasizing their strength and masculinity. Is this intentional?

Marsh: This approach emphasizing the masculine strength of Christ and the archangels Gabriel and Michael, and also St. John, all at St. Mary Catholic Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is very deliberate! I have also tried to bring this approach to the figures of St. Joseph, Patron of the Unborn, in Santa Cruz, California and in Jacksonville, Florida; the figure of John the Baptist at Mission San Juan Bautista, California; and the figure of Christ on the cross at St. Joachim Catholic Church in Madera, California.

Surfer Monument 1998

I’m a realist sculptor who strives to create original and meaningful work in the genre of ecclesiastical and liturgical sculpture. Unfortunately, much of the sculpture in today’s Catholic art world is filled with clichés and copies (just pick up any religious art catalogue), not to mention mediocre sculpting. I feel strongly that the fortis et suavis (strong and gentle) character of Joseph, and Christ, should be the model for male figures, and for the overwhelming/terrifying/awe-striking figures of archangels. In today’s social and political context, where the natural complementarity of the sexes is being questioned, I feel is it critical to imply the God-created natural law basis of the male side of human male-female complementarity.






Chartres Cathedral and Philosophers

By Carrie Gress, Ph.D.

I’ve just started doing some research on Chartres Cathedral and ran across this quotation from 11th century Thierry of Chartres.

In his work, the Heptateuchon, Thierry says, “Philosophy has two principal instruments, the mind and its expression. The mind is enlightened by the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music), its expression, elegant, reasonable, ornate is provide by the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic).”


These seven liberal arts and the artists who most exemplify them are featured on the Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral. (Geometry: Euclid, Rhetoric: Cicero, Dialectic: Aristotle, Arithmetic: Boethius, Astronomy: Ptolemy, Grammar: either Donatus or Priscian)

What is striking about this is:

A) How foreign the notions of the Quadrivium and Trivium seem to us today. What does astronomy have to do with philosophy?

B) How technical and abstract philosophy has become. Philosophy, the love of wisdom, has only a few academic corners where it can actually call itself that. In most university settings, philosophers resort to very precise language and techniques that strike most on the outside as, at best, impenetrable, and at worst, nonsensical.

The one semester I spent doing doctoral studies at a well-known university drove this home to me. The methods of logic have overtaken the field in strangely anachronistic and confounding ways. For a course on Plato, a general assignment would be to read five paragraphs from a given text and then evaluate the argument as logical or illogical, while the rest of the text was of no consequence. When I suggested that one paragraph was made clearer by understanding what Plato said in another book, my comment was met with glazed eyes and a quick changing of subject. Such elements were simply irrelevant. The imposition of twentieth-century techniques upon an ancient text was really what we were after.

Thinking of Thierry of Chartres, few philosophers today give much if any consideration to the elegant, ornate, reasonable expressions available to their trade. For all the efforts to understand the logic of great thinkers, philosophers in the trade have left entire generations of philosophy students empty-headed about great works. Ironically, because philosophy has become so off-putting in content, it has also left students bereft of its modern raison d’etre, the use of logic.

Below: the portal on the right at Chartres is the sedes sapienta, the seat of wisdom. This is Our Lady with Our Lord sitting on his lap. The personifications of the liberal arts are in the archway above her.

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And here’s some more photos of Chartres Cathedral!


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Why Do So Many Choir Directors Have “Van Gogh’s Ear for Music”?

By David Clayton

The choice of music at Mass matters to me. It was hearing polyphony and chant done well that contributed to my conversion. It was hearing practically every other style of music in church that contributed to my not becoming a Christian until I did.

I grew up hearing Methodist hymns in church, and today I can’t bear to sing them or any other “traditional” 19th century-style hymn, even if the words are written by Fr Faber. I hate Christmas carols and find them sentimental. I had grown tired of Silent Night and Ding Dong Merrily on High before I was 10 years old, and today always refuse to go caroling in the neighborhood on the grounds that I don’t want to chase any more people away from the Church.

I find the attempts to be musically current in church even more repellent. Whether it’s the Woodstock-throwback-with-added-sugar of the standard pew missalet, candied Cat Stevens presented by a cantor in a faux operatic or broadway-musical style, or the more recent equivalents, imitations of the pop music of the moment to “get the young people in,” it’s all the same to me. If ever there was an award that labels a musical artist as a legend in his own lunchtime, it’s “Christian album of the year.” Attempts at being Christian and cutting edge always seem outdated five minutes after they were composed, and most weren’t that great for the four minutes they were relevant.

Whenever I am in church and expected to sing along to such inventions, I shift uneasily and look down at the ground, hoping nobody notices I’m not joining in. (That’s assuming I can hit the pitch, which is usually too high for most men anyway.) It is an attempt to appeal to young people that feels to me like an imitation of the foolish parent who tries to hard to be liked by his adolescent children by adopting inappropriate teenage fashions; he inevitably misses the mark, and loses self respect and the respect of the younger generation in the process. To my mind, there’s nothing more embarrassing than a grown-up trying to be hip and groovy when the words “hip” and “groovy” haven’t been hip and groovy for a long, long time. I thought that when I was 13-year-old atheist and I still think it today.

And I’m not just talking about the music for the Novus Ordo or the Masses in the vernacular. I am amazed at how often I struggle at the choice of hymns and the sentimental Masses from the 19th or early 20th century that some choir masters seem manage to dig up when given the freedom to choose music for the Extraordinary Form. Where do they get them from?

All of this music drives me to distraction; and before I heard chant and polyphony and found out there was something different, it drove me to atheism too.

Am I am unusually narrow minded and intolerant in regard to music? Well, in the context of the liturgy. I am very likely spoiled by having had the benefits of the choirs of the London Oratory and Westminster Cathedral, or occasionally Anglican chant at Choral Evensong at one of the great Anglican cathedrals in England.

But I should point out that as long as I can remember, and long before I converted, my gut reaction told me that contemporary styles of Christian music were just the epitomy of “naffness,” to use the English colloquialism. Even when I was a schoolboy in Birkenhead, the bad musical taste of Christians gave me plenty of ammunition for deriding them for trying to be trendy when they “didn’t have a clue.”

Furthermore, I don’t think I am overly traditional or reactionary about music in other contexts. I don’t believe that it all went downhill after Bach, for example, or with Wagner (the Siegfried Idyll is one of my favourite pieces). I enjoy operas, swing, jazz, and pop music. I play Appalachian Old Time on my banjo (very badly, and if you’re interested, my favorite Old Time tune is called Waiting for Nancy.) I sing the pop songs from my past when I’m driving and think nobody is listening – Stephen Bishop’s sentimental love songs, Rory Gallagher’s Wayward Child, Betty Boo’s Where Are You Baby or Stereo MCs’ Connected. (I lost touch with the pop world after 1992).

But I have never thought that any of this was music for the liturgy.

For a long time after my conversion, if I couldn’t get to the Oratory, I would seek out a spoken, low Mass. If I visited a church for the first time, I picked an early morning Mass in the hope that the parish didn’t have the resources to put on any music that early. But even then I found that it’s not unusual for the 7:30 am to have a troop of local schoolchildren doing a hand-bell version of Immaculate Mary for the Offertory. I don’t think I am alone in this.

Although the others in attendance will probably not have exactly my taste in music, there will be many who are as strong in their likes and dislikes as I am, and will most probably dislike the music at Mass as much as me.

I would maintain that it is the music at Masses that has contributed as much to the the drop off in the numbers attending as any other factor. Putting aside those who attend the rare parishes that offer predominantly chant and classic polyphony, for the most part the only people left in the pews of most churches are the tone deaf, those who have sufficient faith to offer up the pain of listening to music they hate, or the very small number of people who actually like what they hear.

Whenever I bring this up with priests, their concern is for those who currently go to Mass. The priest will tell me that for “pastoral” reasons, he has to be careful about changing things, as he doesn’t want to offend people and drive them away. This is an understandable reaction, but my thought when I hear this is that for every person who is enjoying the music in Mass, there are a ninety-nine more who don’t like it, and most of these 99 people don’t come to church at all, and won’t as long as the music stays as it is. I always want to ask the question: when are we going to start being pastoral to the 99% outside the church and stop pandering to the 1% (if I can borrow a slogan from elsewhere!)

But even if there is a desire to create attractive music? What music should we choose?

Perhaps we could just cut out all modern forms and stick exclusively to chant and polyphony? Unlike all the other styles mentioned above, we can say objectively, regardless of personal taste, that according to the tradition of the Church these styles are appropriate for the liturgy.

I think therefore a switch to chant and polyphony across parishes would help and attendance at Mass would increase a little bit, after an initial drop. Some people will respond to it immediately, and others will grow to like it. But I don’t think this measure alone would be enough. Not everyone will persist in developing that taste unless there is other music that can be accessible to them, and lead them into an appreciation of the canon of great works.

This has been pointed out by popes in the past. While asserting the centrality of chant and polyphony, Popes such as Pius X and Pius XII have also acknowledged the need for new compositions in the liturgy. For example in Mediator Dei, Pius XII wrote:

‘It cannot be said that modem music and singing should be entirely excluded from Catholic worship. For, if they are not profane nor unbecoming to the sacredness of the place and function, and do not spring from a desire of achieving extraordinary and unusual effects, then our churches must admit them since they can contribute in no small way to the splendor of the sacred ceremonies, can lift the mind to higher things and foster true devotion of soul.’

The necessity of accessible contemporary forms as well as the canon of traditional works is the message of Benedict XVI’s book, A New Song for the Lord; Faith and Christ and Liturgy Today. And he places the responsibility for making it happen on the artist or composer, telling us that it is the mark of true creativity that an artist or composer can “break out of the esoteric circle” – i.e., the circle of their friends at dinner parties – and connect with “the many.”

This grave responsibility is one that thus far, it seems to me, the vast majority of Christian artists in almost every creative discipline have not been able to take on. That is not to say, however, that the task facing creative artists today is easy. Indeed, it may be so hard than it needs an inspired genius in any particular field to show us the way before it can happen.

One thing is clear to me: we need a fresh approach. And contrary to what many seem to think, most music in churches today is not broadly popular. It is strongly disliked.

Dr Peter Kwasniewski recently wrote a very good piece for the blog OnePeterFive, highlighting the difficulties in adapting modern forms of Western music to music appropriate to the liturgy. He and I both think that what has been done in the last 50 years particularly has been largely disastrous. He doubted that it could ever be done because of the special nature of modern culture. I agree that it is difficult, but for all that the style of modern music speaks of the secular world, I am a little more optimistic than him. The task is difficult certainly, but I hold out hope and argue that just because it has been done badly up until now, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be done well in the future.

Here is one particular difficulty that composers are going to have to overcome if they are to engage with modern culture successfully (and prove me right!). This arises from the fragmented nature of modern culture.

Contrary to what I have heard many say, I don’t believe the general population today is musically ignorant and uncultured. Modern society is highly musical and has sophisticated taste. More people enjoy music and have access to a greater range of styles from all periods than ever before, and they are choosing what appeals most. Most people are not ignorant, for example, of what classical music is, even if they have only heard it in a film score. The problem is that this sophistication is one that fragments rather than unifies. People today know what they like and dislike, and they are sensitive to even subtle changes in style, and will react strongly to them. Within any genre, there are myriad sub-genres that are discernible to devotees and who discriminate between them. And even within the same sub-genre, people will strongly favor one artist, but react strongly against another; hence the cliché that those who like the Beatles hate the Stones. (I am a Beatles person, by the way). This sophisticated level of discrimination exists in every genre of popular music up to the present day. Furthermore, the scene changes rapidly. What was popular with teenagers a few months ago is now forgotten. And at any moment, what is popular with teenagers is not liked generally by the rest of the population.

As a result, there is no form of secular music that I know of, classical or contemporary, that currently exists and will appeal to all people. This is why choir directors should not blamed so much for introducing music that is so disliked. Given the compositions available to them, it is almost inevitable that their choices will be disliked by most people. (Where criticism is fair, I think, is where the choice of these modern forms supplants, rather sits alongside, traditional chant and polyphony.)

So, although virtually nobody will share my tastes in music, there will be very many people, I suggest, who are like me in having a strong sense of what they like and dislike, and because they are used to being able to choose the music they listen to, very little tolerance for what they don’t like, however unrefined that taste may seem to others. This is why, as one newly appointed choir director described to me, a parishioner approached him and told him that he was worried that the music at the church would change because he was “very traditional.” “Oh, that’s good,” said the choir director, “I’m pretty traditional too.” “I’m so glad,” said the parishioner, with obvious relief, “so we’ll still have the music we’ve always had, especially my favorite traditional tune, On Eagles Wings.”

So we can see why, in my opinion, any musical form composed for the liturgy that is obviously derived from any contemporary music style or past style that has not transcended its own time (and I would put all the commonly sung hymns into this category) will almost certainly be disliked by the majority.

Therefore, we need a fresh approach. This, I suggest, will be radically different from the superficial analysis that has produced “contemporary” Christian music. Musicologists will have to get deeper into the embedded code that unites the forms of modern music together, build on what is good, reject what is bad, and incorporate these into the essential patterns of interrelated harmonies and intervals in a form that also satisfies the essential and universal criteria of liturgical music. If these are played in church alongside chant and polyphony, the appropriateness of such music will become apparent even to many who do not consider themselves music experts. To the degree that a composer is successful, the new compositions will not only connect with people today, but will transcend their own time, with the best examples being added to cannon of great works.

If I am wrong, and however penetratingly we search for it, this common code of modernity that is essentially good does not exist, then Peter is right! There is a reason for my optimism, however, for I do see some modern compositions that do seem to me to be accessible to more people, and which are appropriate for the liturgy.

Some of the very best of these examples (although not all by all means) seem to occur in works composed for the vernacular. It seems that seeking the principles that connect music to language at the most basic level, forces composers into that territory where they are beginning, at least, to access a common code for the culture, which today springs from the vernacular. Those that do so in such a way that they respect also what is essential to chant and polyphony, create the beginnings of this crossover music. I have noticed also that modern composers look with some success to Anglican and Eastern forms of chant for inspiration. The result is successful when it seems both of our time, and of all time. Some of the people who come to mind immediately who are doing this are Adam Bartlett, with his material available through Illuminare Publications, Fr Dawid Kusz OP at the Dominican Liturgical Center in Krakow (who composes for the Polish language), Paul Jernberg, Roman Hurko, Adam Wood, Frank LaRocca and our own Peter K. There are more I am sure. What is interesting to me is that the successes in the vernacular can then feed back into composition for Latin. Paul Jernberg composed his Mass of St Philip Neri for the English Novus Ordo. It was so admired by one patron that he commissioned Paul to write a setting for Ecce Panis Angelorum and he has also composed for the Latin Ordinary – appropriate of course for both OF and EF.

I do not know for certain if all, or indeed any of these composers are the trailblazers to whom the future will look back, as we today look back to Palestrina. Only time will tell. But I do feel sure that theirs is the type of approach that we should be aiming for, and is the one that will succeed in the end.

La Vierge Noir – the Power of French Medieval Art and Architecture

By Keri Wiederspahn

Beauty leads the way to inspire wonder and holds the key to mystery and a call to transcendence. 

Several decades ago, as an unchurched 15-year old drawn to art and already identifying myself as an aspiring artist, I was blessed with a transformative encounter on a trip to the ancient cliff-side village of Rocamadour in the South of France not far from where my parents and I were spending the year on my father’s sabbatical in the Dordogne Valley.  

Medieval discoveries were now expected daily in our lives in this new land, but this pilgrim experience became something altogether different — my first encounter with the infinite beauty and love of God received through a sacred aesthetic experience.   A true source of theology was manifest in this place of tangible space, color and sculpted form, celebrating the joy and mystery of salvation while revealing an unexpected door of mercy that initiated my early hunger and thirst for God.

With flights of steps worn smooth from the centuries of pilgrimage by kings, bishops, nobles and common folk, various legends and fact intermingle surrounding Rocamadour through St. Amadour who is said to have built the cliff-side chapel in honor of the Blessed Virgin, attributed to also having carved the simple Black Madonna known for its miraculous happenings.

The sense of the Other is profound in this place, rich with the gift of Divine inspiration.


The carved Black Madonna remains cloistered in its chapel to this day, and it was from within the centuries-old resonance of prayer that Christ somehow became real to me for the first time through this most simple presentation of Christ through his Mother.

It turns out that many conversions happened in this humble chapel — composer Francis Poulenc was one of them, a great talent influenced and mentored by Eric Satie, who after spending extended time in the chapel, dedicated the remainder of his life to spiritual themes in his work, beginning with his Litanies à la Vierge Noire.  I did not convert immediately, but the memory of my visit to this place has always been with me and was profoundly influential on my being received into the Church in my mid twenties.

Being an artist and a Catholic convert who has been pursuing traditional Byzantine iconography now for close to a decade, there is life-giving purpose to gaze at the origins of imagery and influence that pave the way towards diving deeper into one’s artistic practice. Currently, I’m poised to begin a large icon of Our Lady of Guadelupe, and recognize the moments that remain constant in the flow of beauty that continue to give back and illumine.

Pope Francis shares: “Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the ‘way of beauty’ (via pulchritudinis).  Every expression of true beauty can be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus. (Beauty is) a means of touching the human heart and enabling the truth and goodness of the Risen Christ to radiate within it…so a formation in the via pulchritudinis ought to be a part of our effort to pass on the faith.”

Listen to Francis Poulenc’s Litany for the Black Madonna

Litanies à la Vierge Noire, Francis Poulenc translation: 

Lord, have pity on us.

Jesus Christ, have pity on us.

Jesus Christ, hear us.

Jesus Christ, grant our prayers.

God the Father, creator, have pity on us.

God the Son, redeemer, have pity on us.

God the Holy Spirit, sanctifier, have pity on us.

Holy Virgin Mary, pray for us.

Virgin, queen and patron, pray for us.

Virgin, whom Zacchaeus the tax-collector made us know and love,

Virgin, to whom Zacchaeus or Saint Amadour raised this sanctuary,

Pray for us, pray for us.

Queen of the sanctuary, which Saint Martial consecrated,

and where he celebrated his holy mysteries,

Queen, before whom knelt Saint Louis

Asking of you good fortune for France,

Pray for us, pray for us.

Queen, to whom Roland consecrated his sword, pray for us.

Queen, whose banner won the battles, pray for us.

Queen, whose hand delivered the captives, pray for us.

Our Lady, whose pilgrimage is enriched by special favors,

Our Lady, whom impiety and hate have often wished to destroy,

Our Lady, whom the peoples visit as of old,

Pray for us, pray for us.

Lamb of God, who wipes out the sins of the world, pardon us.

Lamb of God, who wipes out the sins of the world, grant our prayers.

Lamb of God, who wipes out the sins of the world, have pity on us.

Our Lady, pray for us.

To the end that we may be worthy of Jesus Christ.

+  +  +

May we continue to strengthen our lives through the gifts of beauty 

past and present to bear light to Christ, the source of our joy, 

beholding and leading us further along the via pulchritudinis.

African Cardinal Speaks on the Place of African Culture In the Church

In my discussions about the liturgy being the driving force for culture, many people wonder if this is a Eurocentric debate. What about African or Asian culture? Should that supplant, perhaps, Gregorian chant and and polyphony as the foundational music forms? I would say absolutely not. These are above all Christian forms of music and are formed by the liturgy of the Church and as such are universal.

Here is the Cardinal Robert Sarah a Guinean speaking on the subject. He was appointed as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Pope Francis in November 2014. Neither Pope Francis, an Argentinian or his appointee are formed in Europe. Cardinal Sarah was speaking at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London this past week about his desire to see a more faithful implementation of Sacrosanctum Consilium in the Church’s liturgy. In regard to the place of secular cultural forms in the liturgy he said the following:

‘I am an African. Let me say clearly: the liturgy is not the place to promote my culture. Rather, it is the place where my culture is baptised, where my culture is taken up into the divine. Through the Church’s liturgy (which missionaries have carried throughout the world) God speaks to us, He changes us and enables us to partake in His divine life.’

How does the liturgy ‘baptise’ a culture. Using music as the example to illustrate what might be true for the forming influence of the liturgy on culture, my understanding would be as follows: draw in those aspects of African culture that are in harmony with the traditional and universally Christian forms. Without ever supplanting chant and polyphony as the exemplary muscial forms of the liturgy, this as place for locally influenced sacred music. These will be timeless and universal in their appeal, albeit with an African twist. These then become the unchanging and good aspects of African culture upon which Christianity can build so that it can be transformed into a Christian culture that speaks to Africans.

And in case anyone doubts that chant should have pride of place in the liturgy. Cardinal Sarah reirterated what Sacrosanctum Consilium tells. He said:

Please permit me to mention some other small ways which can also contribute to a more faithful implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium. One is that we must sing the liturgy, we must sing the liturgical texts, respecting the liturgical traditions of the Church and rejoicing in the treasury of sacred music that is ours, most especially that music proper to the Roman rite, Gregorian chant.

A Walk Near Martinez, CA

Here are some photos of a walk I did recently in the hills overlooking the town of Martinez in the San Francisco Bay area of California. As you can see, pasture land that was green and lush a couple of months ago is now brown, and only the oak trees remain verdent, standing proud in the landscape as the send their roots deep into the soil in search of water.

I have been visiting this part of the world for many years now (my brother lives in the area) and when I first visited it was at this time of the year and I found the landscape to dry and dusty to seem beautiful – I was used to the English countryside which is green just about all year round. Somehow just to look at what seems an almost dead landscape made me feel thirsty. However after many visits I have now seen this landscape at other times of the year and I realised that in the winter, which is the rainy season, this area looks as green as England. Interestingly, I found that this knowledge of how it changes through the year changed my appreciation of the landscape even in the dry season. It was as though my memory of how lush it could be was always part of my impression. So it now seemed akin to the pleasure of seeing the yellowing and browning of trees in autumn – when you know that this is just temporary and that as part of cycle of seasons there will be a rebirth later in the year, it no longer seems desolate and inhospitable now.

The town of Martinez itself, incidentally, is on the south shore of the Carquinez Strait in the San Francisco Bay. The area to north of this is inlet contains the Napa Valley, famous for its vinyards. I like the views of the town below, which has an oil refinery and is visited by tankers. If you watch the boat traffic, you can see these tankers and tug boats motoring through the straight. They make a majestic sight.


Before we could enjoy the view, we had to put the work in and climb up from sea level through the trees:








This is farmland with public access. There is alwas the risk of running into cows – this cowshed gave met a clue…



And then I turned the corner and saw them taking a drink at the pond…





There is an old road that goes West from Martinez that is now closed to traffic and has become a scenic walk. I started and finished the walk on this drive in a little village called Port Costa. This is a tiny village on the coast with a couple of cafes and old, Victorian buildings. It is a charming quiet little town. There is one aspect of this which is undeveloped and that is the coastline. One would have thought that the most attractive thing about this town was its situation right on the coast, and that the town would have taken advantage of this. If we have been in Devon in England, for example, the whole layout would have been created so as to preserve the view out to see first, and then work backwards from there. In common with many American towns, I have found, they don’t seem to do it. There is a dusty parking lot on the coast and the strip of land between that and the water is hidden by tall, uncared for scrub. Nevertheless it was still a pleasure to have a glass of lemonade here after my walk!








Anglican Ordinariate Liturgy and Sacra Liturgia 2016, London

Sacra Liturgia 2016 opens on July 5th in London. I would like to mention a couple of things that caught my eye in the schedule.

First is that once again the conference is promoting the liturgy of the Anglican Ordinariates. When I attended Sacra Liturgia 2014 in Rome I was heartened by the welcome that priests from the Ordinariates were given, as I wrote in an article, here, in which I said also why I think that their creation is so important for the whole Church.

I am please that the openness to the Anglican Use continues and that in the program of liturgy for the conference there will be a ‘Solemn Mass (Divine Worship – Ordinariate Use)’ on Friday 8th July at 7pm at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, Warwick Street, London W1B 5LZ. Celebrant and preacher will be Mgr Keith Newton, the Ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of the Our Lady of Walsingham. (He is shown in the photo above celebrating the inaugural Ordinariate Use Mass in England in 2013.

Most liturgies for the conference are taking place at the Brompton Oratory. This program includes a Solemn Pontifical Mass in the Ordinary Form celebrated by Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. The music will be by the London Oratory School Schola Cantorum directed by our own Charles Cole.

My own conversion to Catholicism was influenced profoundly by stumbling into a beautiful Latin Mass in the Ordinary Form at the Brompton Oratory over 25 years ago I am pleased to see this and so much of the conference liturgy at this church.

The point should be made that the program of the liturgy is open to all, not just those attending the conference. The full program of liturgies is here.



On another Anglican Ordinariates matter, I was lucky enough recently to bump into Fr Edward Tomlinson of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham at a conference in, of all places, Grand Rapids, Michigan (We were at the annual conference of the Acton Institute). Fr Tomlinson and I were both attending the EF Latin Mass which was offered at the conference and he introduced himself because I had my copy of the Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham under my arm. He told me of his CTS booklet about Ordinariates. This is an excellent short introduction for people who have questions about the Ordinariates and the reasons for their creation. Fr Tomlinson has written it with both curious non-Ordinariate Catholics and curious Anglicans in the UK in mind and so his answers refer to the Personal Ordinariate or Our Lady in Walsingham in particular.

I will quote one page from the booklet about the liturgy of the Ordinariates, simply because it addresses questions that cropped up on this blog when I posted an article about the Customary:

Does the Ordinariate have its own liturgical rites? Yes. Ordinariate texts exist for use in public and private worship. Ordinariate services are, of course, open to all.

What is the purpose of a distinct Ordinariate liturgy? Ordinariate liturgy exists to encourage an ‘Anglican patrimony’ – that is worship reflecting an English and Celtic spirituality, to connect Catholic liturgical life in the present with its pre-Reformation existence, reminding Britain that she was in truth, formed and forged in a rich Catholic culture.

Are the Ordinariate texts mandatory? No. Being a full part of the Latin Rite, Ordinariate groups and priests are free to choose between the Ordinariate resources for worship and those of the wider Church.

What is the Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham? The Customary is the ‘office book’ of the Ordinariate, that is to say it provides texts for Morning and Evening Prayer and other similar celebrations. Accessing aspects of the Book of Common Prayer, so familiar to Anglicans, it places heavy emphasis on readings from the English and Celtic saints to remind us of our pre-Reformation history.

The booklet is available from CTS here.

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