Saint John Paul II, in his prescient Letter to Artists, reminded us that “The Church needs art,” and that art needs the Church. While much of the Catholic world has forgotten about this document, it fell like a thunderbolt amongst Christian artists, helping further intensify the growing rebirth of spiritual synergy between art and Mother Church, a synergy necessary for a successful revitalization of the Church and evangelization of the world.
One of the artists who has drawn inspiration from the Pope’s famous letter and example – and reformed his personal life and artistic career in turn – is the American composer Frank La Rocca. A man of profound faith, his journey back towards the heart of the Church began in the white heat of the creative moment, where the aesthetic creature encountered its source and creator in a most surprising way.
Frank La Rocca has often spoken of falling away from Catholicism during his teen years, entering a workday agnosticism which still including the tacit belief in a Trinitarian God. Yet as he grew older and became a parent, he began to yearn to cross the great divide between him and God. The pivotal moment in his eventual reversion came at a time of nearly insurmountable creative and professional crisis, where a simple prayer for assistance brought about what for La Rocca was a sudden and excellent musical solution, as well as the unexpected energy to be able to realize it in a very short period of time. This “eureka” moment was recognized as a divine intervention by the composer – something beyond his general faculties and abilities – and would become the first great step in a twenty year journey back to the Catholic faith.
The great musical names of our time – composers like Henryk Górecki, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Arvo Pärt – have purposefully made the journey from personal and aesthetic modernism to a bold new sacred style both profoundly personal and yet strongly rooted in the great Christian masterworks of the past. La Rocca’s own journey of faith lead to a reawakening of a deeper sense of beauty, and conversely a rejection of the tenets of academic modernism and related relativistic aesthetic theories. He would eventually come to a place of silent crisis, out of which he would emerge with his first tonal sacred composition, the choral piece “Exaudi.” Since this time La Rocca has written a large body of musical compositions dominated by sacred vocal works.
Nor has La Rocca’s significant contribution to the North American renaissance of sacred art gone unnoticed by the general public; his 2013 self-released CD In This Place was a prestigious “Critic’s Choice” classification for the American Record Guide even as it reached the top ten for classical sales on Amazon that year. This has been accompanied by a cascade of performances across the United States, Europe, South America, and Asia.
Yet what does one do with a composer like Frank La Rocca? The simple answer is: commission him. While it is often seen as a modern difficulty to pay money for the work of living artists– and the need for real monetary and institutional support discourages others – this is the natural relationship between artists and the Church. The Church is in need of authentic, well considered artworks brought about by trained craftsmen, while the Catholic artists who have given a lifetime to the mastery of their craft need the active and frequent patronage of their Church. This natural synergy in Catholicism has existed widely up until modern times, and no effective New Evangelization can take place before such bridges are rebuilt.
While such initiatives are essential in our modern calling to Christify the world, they need not be the sole purview of larger Churches and Catholic centers. In this bold spirit, the St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas, Texas has certainly given us a modern model upon which to build such new aesthetic initiatives. Inspired by the efforts of their music director Alfred Calabrese, they have organized an entire aesthetics conference – “High Above the Stars: Sainthood, Beauty, & Catholic Artistic Expression” – which will run this year from May 19-21. As a part of this conference they have commissioned a brand new 90-minute long musical work from La Rocca – an oratorio titled “A Rose in Winter” – about the life and long lasting impact of St. Rita of Cascia.
La Rocca’s website says:
A Rose in Winter unfolds in two parallel stories: that of Saint Rita of Cascia, set in 15th century Italy, and a second one set in the present day, focusing on two pilgrims, Fideo and Tomas, whose chance meeting in Cascia during Holy Week prompts a series of tense conversations about the scope and limits of religious belief. Each of the oratorio’s movements begins with an encounter between the men and dissolves to a flashback from St. Rita’s life, the events of which serve as a kind of commentary on the men’s debate about life, death and faith.
The danger of presenting an older saint’s biography in our modern age of cynicism is that such tales can sound like hopeless, ancient pious dramatizing. The approach of the opera’s librettist – Matthew Lickona – is therefore ingenious, as he allows his modern characters of Tomas and Fideo – skeptic and believer – to “explore the line between faith and fantasy in their exchanges.” As the modern rendering of the great debate of faith against uncertainty rages, scenes from St. Rita’s life unfold in dramatic counterpoint. Such an approach is not only evangelically compelling, but also opens new potent musical vistas for the composer.
At a time where the original promise of modernism is increasingly seen to be a complex lie – while the movement grows stale in output and dogmatic in its tenets – it is precisely composers like Frank La Rocca who are leaving us the true great music of our age. For those who wish to make the trip to Dallas, there is a chance to see the first performance of a work which may be played centuries from now, long after our modern popular culture has faded into dust.
For those who wish to “Listen like a Catholic”, Frank’s music provides a compelling answer. La Rocca deserves to become a household name amongst Catholics who realize the vital and ultimately inseparable connection between Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. May saint St. Rita of Cascia intercede for a bountiful conference and a brilliant premiere for all involved. St. Rita, Ora Pro Nobis!
Some additional pieces by La Rocca:
Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a composer whose works have been performed across the United States and Europe. He has taught music at various schools including Christendom College, the University of Maryland, and the Jagiellonian University of St. John Paul II (and Copernicus) fame. He currently serves as the Curator of Music for the Foundation for Sacred Arts, and lives near Chicago with his wife and children.