Sacred Music and the Vocation of the Composer

"Music in the liturgy takes on the role of a sacramental," says composer Frank La Rocca in this CWR interview, "it must prepare the faithful to receive grace and dispose them to cooperate with it."

The composer Frank La Rocca was born in New Jersey but has spent his adult life on the West Coast, having taught at California State University, East Bay from 1981 until his retirement in 2014. The biography on his personal website notes that although he was trained “as an academic modernist during his degree studies at Yale and University of California, Berkeley, La Rocca came to see this approach as a barrier to authentic musical expression, and spent many years in search of a personal creative language. His catalog includes works in all genres, with an emphasis on a cappella sacred choral works.” 

His collection of sacred music, In This Place (Enharmonic Records, 2013), which contains choral and instrumental works composed in recent years, reached the top ten in classical CD sales on Amazon and was a 2013 “Critic’s Choice” at American Record Guide.

La Rocca’s work has been performed around the world, including in Europe, China, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Uganda. Performers of his compositions include the California Symphony, Oakland Symphony, Lumen Valo, soprano Christine Brandes, Strata, Artists Vocal Ensemble, Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco, Cathedral Choral Society, San Francisco Girls Chorus, Prague Radio—Choir and Orchestra, Alexander String Quartet and others. He is the recent winner of the ORTUS international choral composition competition and has recently completed “A Rose In Winter – the life of St. Rita of Cascia”, a major work for chorus, orchestra and soloists commissioned by Alfred Calabrese, Director of Music at St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Dallas, Texas. It will premiere there this May.
 
Catholic World Report recently corresponded with the La Rocca about his recent work as well as his journey back to the Catholic Church, the state of classical music, and the process of composing liturgical music.

CWR: How did you come to composing music? Did you have an interest in music from an early age?

Frank La Rocca: My father was a professional big band trumpet player and arranger and my first music teacher when I began trumpet lessons at age 7.  On the occasions when I heard him play it was an overwhelming experience—even at age 5—and I wanted very much to be able to do the same.  Around age 9, I heard the piano music of Chopin for the first time and decided to switch to piano lessons.  As for composing, I was always drawn to improvisation on the piano and, at age 14, I “wrote” my first song, a lament over being dumped by my first girlfriend.  I never actually wrote it down because I was not aware that I was “composing”—instead I just extended, continually revised and memorized this improvised lament.  The process I follow today still resembles those early experiences in that I place great value on working at the keyboard and letting my fingers lead as much as my mind, though I now have a vastly expanded repertoire of compositional technique to do the extending and revising.

CWR: You were raised Catholic, yet left the practice of the faith for many years. Did music play a part in your return to the Catholic Church? 
Frank La Rocca: Music played a central role in my return to the Catholic Church.  In my late teens I had stopped practicing the faith, but never rejected belief in a Trinitarian God.  In my thirties, with the birth of my children, I realized I had to confront the gulf I felt between me and God—but I thought the initiative ought to be on God’s part.  I wanted a sign of some kind.  Then, when I was in final rehearsals for a major work (the premiere was only days away) I discovered that the crucial, climactic moment of the piece—a long passage that represented the big payoff for the listener and upon which the entire piece would stand or fall—was a complete failure.  I had around 36 hours to re-compose and re-copy the score and parts (by hand) for this passage, but in those days composition was always painfully slow process and there was simply no hope that I could do what I needed to. 

I fell to my knees in prayer, imploring God to get me through this crisis.  A simply fantastic idea came to me almost immediately, and I came up with a replacement for this critical passage that so far exceeded anything I had previously conceived or been able to compose that I took this as direct evidence of a divine intervention.  It would still be some 20 years before I went back to the confessional to be welcomed back into the Church, but that event set the trajectory.  I could say much more about how my attempts to discover beauty in my music at a time when chaotic, fractured dissonance was all the rage among my peers was really a metaphor for a search for Truth, Beauty and Goodness—and indeed it was, though this dawned on me only very gradually.

CWR: Your recent CD, In This Place, features primarily sacred choral music.  Has this always been an interest of yours?

Frank La Rocca: A way station on my return to the Church found me experiencing a “born-again” Evangelical religious conversion and worshiping in various Protestant denominations.  Something authentic and important happened to me in this Road to Damascus-like event, and it stopped me in my tracks—including as a composer.  After a couple of years of complete creative silence, I chose as my first project an a cappella choral setting, in Latin, of verses from the Seven Penitential Psalms.  It was quite a successful experiment and I realized I had found a way, in my creative work, of working out a journey of penance and grace in a medium in which, with its relatively limited technical means (unaccompanied voices), I could also begin to forge a language of truth and beauty that brought my faith and my art together in the same place, where they could foster a kind of mutual enrichment. That is the “place” of my CD’s title “In This Place”. Sacred choral music remains at the center of my work to this day.

CWR: How would you describe the role of the composer of sacred music for the Church?  Do you approach the composition of liturgical music differently than music for the concert hall?

Frank La Rocca: To create sacred music for the liturgy, the composer has to internalize a discipline and restraint that is quite foreign to the present-day understanding of the “artistic temperament.” Complete subjective freedom, the breaking of restraints, unrestricted projection of personality and ‘originality’ are values inculcated into aspiring artists during their training and have been since the 19th century, reaching a new level of radicalism in the early 20th century.

This kind of approach is antithetical to authentic liturgical music, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has pointed out in many different reflections on sacred music.  Pope Pius X, in his motu proprio, Tra le sollecitudini, laid out with great clarity a very different set of criteria: “Sacred music, being an integral part of the liturgy, is directed to the general object of the liturgy, namely, the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful.” It must have the qualities of holiness, beauty and universality. The music must not be an end in itself as it may be—quite legitimately—in the concert hall.  Music in the liturgy takes on the role of a sacramental; it must prepare the faithful to receive grace and dispose them to cooperate with it.  To do this, it must be fused to the Logos, the Word, in an intimate and filial relationship, not drawing undue attention to itself and thereby distracting from the primacy of the Word.

As Benedict XVI has taught, sacred music must be Incarnational, that is, in the same way that the Incarnated Son on the Cross draws up all Creation to the Father, sacred music in the liturgy must self-sacrificially draw the faithful more deeply into the Word, the Logos.  

CWR: What sort of experience have you had in teaching music? Based on that and on your experiences as a musician/composer, how would you assess the state of contemporary classical music? Contemporary sacred music?

Frank La Rocca: I taught music theory and composition for 35 years in the university and in that time I saw a great many changes in my students.  While some of these changes have tended towards a fixation on music of less substance (thanks to the influence of video game music), on the whole these changes have been good.  There has been a move away from doctrinaire approaches to composition that prioritize concept and philosophy over real musical experience and expressiveness.  On the whole, I think contemporary classical music has emerged in good shape from a period of sterility and dryness, and one hears more and more new music that is engaging, expressive, and accessible to non-specialist audiences.

As for contemporary sacred music—that is a very broad field depending on how carefully one defines what is authentic in that realm.  Defined loosely as “music you hear in church,” sacred music has been in a state of decay and banality never before seen, as a result of a misguided attempt to make it resemble certain popular music styles of the last 50 years—all in the name of “relevance.” Defined more carefully as music reflecting a high level of craft and excellence, and genuine understanding of the nature of sacred music, there is a great deal of marvelous sacred music that has been written in the last 30 years or so.

CWR: What composers working today do you listen to? Who are some of your main influences?

Frank La Rocca: Among those composers of the last 30 years or so who are writing excellent sacred concert (and liturgical) music are the Catholic composers Sir James MacMillan of Scotland and Kryztof Penderecki of Poland, and the Orthodox composers Arvo Pārt of Estonia and Sir John Tavener of England.  I also listen to John Adams, Steve Reich and David Lang, among others.

Among my personal influences I count quite a wide array of composers: Palestrina, Byrd, Schumann, Mahler, Stravinsky and Pārt.(Artwork: Daniel Mitsui)
CWR: You’ve composed a new oratorio, A Rose In Winter, for chorus, orchestra, and soloists, that will premiere at St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Dallas in May. What is the oratorio about? How can readers find out more about the event? Where else will it be performed?

Frank La Rocca: The music director at St. Rita’s in Dallas, Dr. Alfred Calabrese, commissioned a major work from me to celebrate the life their patron and to foster greater awareness of her truly fascinating life and times (1381-1457 in central Italy).  After a long search for someone to write the libretto for this musical work, Al and I chose a brilliant young Catholic writer, Matthew Lickona, from San Diego.  Working from a limited set of facts and traditions surrounding her life, Lickona created a remarkably imaginative text—an epic poem, really (since it is metered and rhymed throughout its 25 pages)—that lent itself very well to a dramatic musical setting. Here is a highly condensed synopsis of that text:

Two pilgrims meet at a Holy Week festival in Cascia, Italy and discover they have something in common: each of their mothers believed the life of her infant son had been saved through intercession of Saint Rita of Cascia (1381-1457). The men share little else: one of them, Tomás, has rejected his faith and all the pious stories about St. Rita; the other, Fideo, holds on to his beliefs, though tenuously. A series of flashbacks return us to her hometown during the Italian Renaissance as we see how the challenges and complexities of St. Rita’s life shed light on the conflict that develops between the two men. Her turbulent life unfolds in a series of musical tableaux that impart a dramatic immediacy to all that she experienced as daughter, bride at age 12, mother, widow and Augustinian Nun.

A more detailed synopsis is found on the Facebook page dedicated to the oratorio in the post pinned to the top of the page. The icon seen on this page of the Crown of Thorns interwoven with a living branch from a rose bush was commissioned from renowned Catholic artist Daniel Mitsui for this project.

To highlight the significance of the premiere, St. Rita’s will be holding a three-day conference leading up to the premiere entitled, “High Above the Stars: Sainthood, Beauty, and Catholic Artistic Expression” featuring an impressive lineup of presenters, including the former director the National Shrine to St. Rita in Philadelphia, Very Rev. Michael F. Di Gregorio, O.S.A, and David Clayton of New Liturgical Movement.  Dr. Calabrese will conduct the premiere performance and both Lickona and I will be there as presenters.

Here is the conference website with all the details: www.saintritaconference.com.  The conference takes place at St. Rita’s in Dallas, May 19-21, 2016.

Additional performances we hope will take place at St. Rita’s National Shrine in Philadelphia, and at her Basilica in Cascia, Italy, but no specific dates are on the calendar at this point.  People have to hear it first, and CDs and videos will be produced from the premiere performance.

CWR: What are some other pieces you are working on, or thinking about?

Frank La Rocca: Since completion of the oratorio in September 2015, I’ve finished a couple of smaller commissions for chorus, and have another commission from a choir in Ireland for Lent in 2017.  Having had the experience of writing the oratorio—by far the largest work of my career (90 minutes)—I find I am eager to take on another large project.  I would prefer to do so on a commission basis, but if none is forthcoming, I would still like to compose a Requiem as my next major work.


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About Carl E. Olson 1122 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.