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‘Quo Vadis, Domine?’: Where to Hear a New Catholic Cantata

Those looking for an incredible upcoming musical experience that is also safe and edifying for the entire family should look here. Now I give you the background story of how this vital collaboration came about.

Conversations I have had in recent years with fellow artists and musicians have often come back to a single topic: the need to build new networks and purposeful professional relationships in the face of an art world that is hostile to tradition. Just last week, I spoke to a young rising star in composition who told me of opportunities for major exposure he was offered from major players if he “just toned down all of that Catholic stuff.” So we continue to find each other everywhere, from the halls of conservatories to the back alleys of social media, strive to build new communities, and create new opportunities that do not require the selling of our souls to a crass pseudo-culture. Catholic art goes on, often in spite of the hostility of our fields and the indifference of the prelates who — up until a few decades ago — saw it as their duty to support actual culture in the life of the Church.

Another more common consequence of the sundering of the once natural cultural links between Church and society is that even well meaning Catholics do not have access to — or often do not know how to access — legitimate cultural opportunities. For those living in the Virginia and Maryland areas, you have a beautiful cultural institution that deserves your support: Three Notch’d Road, the Charlottesville Baroque Ensemble, which plays numerous concert programs in the region throughout the year. Run by fellow traditional Catholic violinist Fiona Hughes, they play programs of assorted ancient music from Christendom with the youthful verve and vitality that these vibrant works deserve. Whether the works are sacred or secular, they represent the sound of a culture more Christian than our own.

In recent years, I’ve been blessed to develop an artistic relationship with Three Notch’d Road that has allowed me to contribute new music to their oeuvre. In the process, I’ve discovered that the audiences at ancient music– and baroque-type events aren’t a bunch of stiffs, but rather an energetic and curious brand of audience seeking new music. As these consumers are generally turned off by the strangeness of academic modernism and the pounding sameness of canned popular music, the rare and rediscovered works often presented by a group like Three Notch’d Road allow for an experience of musical freshness rooted in the beauty of a less corrupt culture. For composers who also seek such beauty, I think such groups provide a unique opportunity to build an aesthetic and spiritual bridge between the eager living and the glorified dead.

Our first fateful collaboration was for Sub Tuum Praesidium, followed two years later by “Before I formed You…” Now in the first week of March, Three Notch’d Road will premiere the work Fiona Hughes and I first wanted to pursue and consequently have been working our way up to: a cantata-length setting of the famous “Quo Vadis” legend.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, it is said that Peter was encouraged to flee Rome during the height of Nero’s persecution of Christians, whom he had framed for the burning of the city. Peter is said to have encountered a vision of Christ on his way out of the city, to which he asked: “Quo vadis, Domine?” (Where are you going, Lord?) To this Christ is said to have offered a stinging rebuke: “As you flee, I am going to be crucified in your place.” Peter turned around and returned to his famous martyrdom, and the rest is our Roman Catholic history. Early Christians marked the spot where this is said to have happened with a tiny Church just off the Via Appia, where a painting of Peter being crucified fills the space behind the small altar today.

The story has naturally supported many fine settings over the years, the most famous being the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz’s masterful novel — Quo Vadis? — which led to his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. Sienkiewicz’s novel of historical fiction — which builds a tale of love and martyrdom preceding this event — has a fine English translation that belongs in every Catholic family library, and naturally in its own right inspired several major film adaptations, including the 1951 American effort starring Robert Taylor. There is also a fine modern Polish adaptation, which I saw shortly after first reading Sienkiewicz’s novel.

At the end of the modern Polish adaptation, when Peter turns from his encounter with Christ to meekly return to his martyrdom in Rome, the camera pans back to reveal not ancient Rome, but rather the sight of Peter returning to modern Rome. Seeing this in theaters overseas, I witnessed audiences gasp as the multi-layered meaning of such a gesture hit them. This was also a central spiritual idea as I approached a musical setting of the pious legend in question.

For our text, we took the original Polish from Sienkiewicz’s own telling of the tale and put it into the form of a script or libretto. Then the text was translated into a Latin appropriate for this early era by a brilliant priest from the FSSP (who has asked to remain nameless, though he would appreciate donations to the order). The story has four voices: Peter (sung in this case by a countertenor), his traveling companion Nazarius (sung by a Soprano), Christ Himself (sung by a bass), and a narrator who dominates the text (sung as a group by the trio). Musically the challenge was to create a setting that spoke of ancient Rome but was also idiomatically appropriate to an ensemble built to play Renaissance and Baroque music, while still creating a work that qualifies as modern (in, hopefully, the best sense of the word). I decided that Peter’s voice would be pleading and even uncertain — and the most ornamented — up until his decision to return. The narration texts are sung in unison or in mostly homophonic progressions, while Nazarius has the simplest of vocal settings, being a mere boy and a confused bystander to the events. Christ, in turn, will be sung by the amazing Catholic bass-baritone Peter Walker, which allowed me as a composer to really dig in and create a strident and muscular part that covers over two octaves. The resulting work is pleading, I think, in our own troubled times, yet positively points the way forward in both its introduction and conclusion.

For listeners less familiar with such works, this is definitely not an opera or even operatic in nature. Rather, it is a modern composition in the tradition of the old morality plays and sacred works that were once the only allowable form of musical performance during Lenten times.

“Ever Ancient, Ever New: Bach and Nowakowski on the Soul’s Awakening” will take place in Virginia at the dates below. I will be at the performances and available to speak afterwards and would love meet the 1P5 readers who come our way.

Friday, March 6, 7:30pm at Trinity Episcopal Church

Saturday, March 7, 7:30pm at St. John’s Episcopal Church

Keswick (Charlottesville)
Sunday, March 8, 4:00pm at Grace Episcopal Church

Click here for tickets!

Image: Mark Nowakowski via YouTube.

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