Music Review: La Rocca’s Requiem Mass for the Homeless

Listen to this Mass here. Utterly beautiful music that plumbs the emotional depths of the Requiem Mass, this masterpiece deserves to become as much a part of the repertoire as Faure’s Requiem.

Background: The Benedict XVI Institute is part of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s efforts to return a sense of the sacred to the Church and the world. We have reached a point where, of the holy triumvirate of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, only the Beautiful can get a hearing, so to speak, in the modern world. The Beautiful can get around the defenses set up under the dictatorship of relativism to keep the Good and the True at bay, can catch people off guard, and surprise them.

So the Archbishop created an Institute to provide resources to parishes to help in the beautiful celebration of the Mass, and to promote sacred art. The Benedict XVI Choir, a sixteen member professional choir under the the direction of Richard Sparks, is among the very best choirs I’ve ever heard. Sparks has one of those impressive musical resumes, having directed choirs and orchestras and founded ensembles and taught and written for decades now.

Frank la Rocca is the Composer in Residence. I am reminded of reading about how, under one of his patrons, 16th century composer Orlando de Lasso had a top notch choir (plus copyists and assistant directors) at his disposal. He would roll out of bed, compose all morning, ring for a servant to take the draft to the copyists with orders that it be rehearsed by the choir that afternoon, and he’d be down to give it a listen later that day. Composer heaven, in other words.

While I don’t imagine la Rocca has it quite that good, he’s got the best part: a fine choir and orchestra to perform his works in appropriate and often beautiful settings with appreciative audiences.

On November 6, in St. Mary’s of the Assumption Cathedral in San Francisco, la Rocca’s Requiem Mass for the Homeless was premiered as part of a requiem mass celebrated by Archbishop Cordileone for the repose of the souls of the homeless who died over the last year. My family attended.

The mass was very beautiful. First and foremost, I was there to pray, so my attention to the music was not what it would have been at a concert. I wasn’t taking any notes. I have yet to give the recently posted YouTube videos the listen they deserve. So, mostly, I’m merely recording general impressions here.

That said, the music was wonderful, beautiful, sublime. I was hearing echoes of Faure, Barber, and a little Britten in there, on top of his obvious roots in chant and the polyphonic giants of the 16th, and, especially, the early 17th centuries – more of the expressive emotionalism of Victoria and Byrd, less the jewel-like but comparatively cool perfection of Palestrina.

Faure and la Rocca do things with dissonance I need to study more. Their voice leading results in what might be expected to sound like harsh passages (and definitely would have gotten them in trouble with the sacred musicians in the 16th century!) but is instead supremely beautiful and expressive. The Barber comparison comes from some of the sonorities la Rocca loves (and I love, too!), closely-spaced, luminous, and moving. Every once in a while, a hint of the sort of repetition and sequences Britten uses so well seemed to be peaking through as well.

Yet the overall texture of the melodies remain very chantlike for the most part – there are exceptions. And he shies not away from the grand chorale cadences of the 16th century masters, even if he’s getting there via the 20th century masters.

None of this detracts at all from the originality and vigor of the music. La Rocca can remind one of many things without ever sounding like anything other than himself. That’s the beauty of real creativity: you find yourself by forgetting yourself in trying to do the most beautiful job you can.

The only other la Rocca work I’m at all familiar with is his Mass for the Americas, which is also very beautiful and profound. This is a very preliminary judgement, but having just listened to that earlier mass and comparing it to the Requiem heard Saturday, the Requiem is the more profound work. There’s a depth to it, a plumbing of human sadness and redemption, that takes this newer work to a higher level – and that’s saying something, because the Mass of the Americas is a very wonderful piece. I hope a recording of this Requiem finds its way onto a CD, so that I can listen to it with more focus.

Of the various Mass commons and propers, the ones which stand out in my memory are the Sanctus, the Agnus, and the Meditation after communion. Typically, one thinks of the angels surrounding the heavenly throne singing in glory at the Sanctus. La Rocca makes even that glorious cry into a journey through pain to redemption. The Lamb of God being sung about in the Agnus is a sacrificial lamb, the supreme Sacrificial Lamb dying to take away the sins of the world. This setting managed to capture something of that, a recurring theme throughout this Mass setting. Finally, the Mediation on Lamentation 1:12 summed up, if possible, the emotional content of the mass. We were praying for the souls of the least of the least of our brethren, those who had nowhere to lay their heads, who it is difficult to even acknowledge or tolerate – yet, they are given to us to love.

I must mention the excellent performance of the Benedict XVI Choir under Richard Sparks. They gave this work the inspired, beautiful realization it deserved.

Ten years ago, I had not heard of Morten Lauridsen, Avro Part, or Frank la Rocca. These are by any measure among the greatest composers of our age. But they write religious music. Film scores get you noticed; religious music ignored. If by any chance you get the opportunity to hear this piece performed, do it. I will post here if I find any recordings.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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