The Apologetics of Beauty

This essay is a transcript of the presentation made by Frank La Rocca as part of Sacred Music at Notre Dame’s conference and festival: “James MacMillan and the Musical Modes of Mary and the Cross”, in September, 2012.

In this presentation my choral work “O Magnum Mysterium” will serve as a springboard to make some observations about issues I consider important in my work as a composer of sacred music, and to offer some commentary on my own approach to setting a sacred text.

Blessed John Paul II’s call to the New Evangelization

As a member of the Lay Faithful in the Catholic Church, and specifically as a composer who receives most of his performances in secular concert settings, my contribution to this new evangelization is in an effort to engage secular culture in the concert hall, and, in part, to nurture the spiritual lives of people in the audience who may be non-believers. But I do not see my role in this regard as simply affirming people where they are.  It is, rather, to serve as an apologist for a distinctively Christian faith –not through direct persuasion, but through the beauty of music.

The Apologetics of Beauty

I was reading an interview a few weeks ago with author Joseph Pearce, and in it I encountered a marvelous phrase, “The Apologetics of Beauty”.  Now there are three modes in which apologetics can be practiced, corresponding to the classical ideals of the the good, the true and the beautiful.

An apologetics of goodness is one that would appeal to a sense of justice, as in the example set by Blessed Mother Teresa or St. Francis of Assisi.  An apologetics of truth is one that would appeal to the intellect and reason, as in the example of St. Thomas Aquinas or C.S. Lewis.

An apologetics of beauty, on the other hand, appeals to the human person’s innate sense of the universal, the mysterious, the numinous – a sense that is pre-rational or, perhaps, super-rational, and which can be reached, I believe, more directly – bypassing the skeptical intellect.

Especially in contexts where relativism may rule the day and where people may not be responsive to appeals to truth or moral goodness, I am convinced they can nevertheless be engaged by the power of beauty.  And it is in this light that I see my work as a composer: I practice an apologetics of beauty.

A consensus on what defines beauty can be hard to come by – and perhaps especially in a discussion among artists.  The concept of beauty that I propose here is very much like what C.S. Lewis described in his essay, “The Weight of Glory”.  He asserts that the primary feeling aroused by beauty is not pleasure, but longing: “the books or the music in which we thought beauty was located will betray us if we trust in them. It was not in them, it only came through them; and what came through them was longing.”

Therefore when I speak of beauty, it is in these two senses:

1. That which arouses in the beholder a longing for the transcendent; that which serves as a bridge from the material to the spiritual world to unite us to the transcendent.

2. That work of art which possesses attributes of harmony, integrity, proportion and clarity appropriate to its subject.

A sensitivity to these attributes in relation to the subject of the artwork directly influences – more than anything else – whether a particular work will successfully serve as that bridge from the material world to the spiritual world that Lewis describes.  In the case at hand, by “subject”, I mean the text to be set to music and all that this text entails.

O Magnum Mysterium – A Musical Theology of the Incarnation

In addition to the usual concerns for poetic meter, structure, image, language and meaning, the setting of sacred texts engages additional questions.  When I prepare to set a sacred text I consider it of paramount importance to discover and understand its theological resonances. These resonances are a layer of meaning that flows beneath the surface of the text and, like an underground stream, feeds the surface of that text, helping to illuminate its deepest meaning. This is the principal ground where I will engage with those qualities of harmony, integrity, proportion and clarity in the most appropriate way for my subject.

O Magnum Mysterium is very rich in theological resonances, particularly regarding Creation and the Incarnation.

These questions are not the only ones raised by this text, and I make no attempt to underscore all of them, or all of them equally – such an approach would lead to a lack of focus.

There is also a good deal of overlap among these questions.  A musical symbol introduced in association with something like the Crucifixion could, if used in a certain way, also have something to tell us about Mary’s role in the story of Salvation, as a later slide will illustrate.

For me, using musical symbols is, conceptually, like making stained glass: painting the images of the faith on a musical canvas. But, as we shall see, it is also much more than mere word painting.

The primary musical symbol used in this piece is borrowed from Baroque practice – a musical representation of the Cross, and it is found all over the music of Bach.

Cross Motif in Bach
….“to know Jesus Christ, and Him crucified”

Note how the motion of the notes, read from left to right, visually describe the four points of the Cross.  This is an example of simple word painting since the actual word “Kreuz” is sung using the four-note pattern.  Interestingly, the name “Bach” depicted in musical notation also outlines a form of the “Kreuz” motif.

In the next slide, from the Et Incarnatus Est of Bach’s B minor Mass, we find the four-note pattern put to more truly symbolic use.  Here the symbol of the Cross serves as a visual allegory, but with a particular musically-embodied meaning.  Allegory is derived from the visual shape of the cross motive as found in the violins; but its interpretation – its deeper symbolic meaning – is given in the painful, dissonant appoggiaturas that are woven into its harmonic fabric.

Let’s now take a look at the opening of my piece which occurs, theologically-speaking, at the intersection of Genesis 1, the Prologue to the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation.

O Magnum Mysterium – opening and Cross motif
…“In the beginning . . . the earth was formless and void”
…“ and the Word was made flesh”
…“the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world”

An indistinct harmony of superimposed fifths in the lower voices evokes the formless cosmos of Genesis, providing the backdrop for the first appearance of the Cross motif, outlined in the red box.  The motif is the symbol of Christ in three senses: Christ the Light of Revelation, Christ the Light of Creation, and Christ the sacrificial victim.

Following the Gospel of St. John, I am tracing the Incarnation back to the beginning of all things, and, following Revelation, affirming the eschatological meaning of the crucified victim, the Lamb, who – through the symbolic power of the Cross motif – appears as already slain as Genesis unfolds.

Note that this is not text painting – the word “Cross” is never mentioned in the text.  Instead the Cross wells up from below the surface of the text – it is one of those theological “underground streams” alluded to earlier.  The Cross symbol, therefore, is not used for text painting but instead as a form of musical hermeneutic that interprets the text for the listener.

Audio Excerpt mm. 1-15

This impression of formlessness is supported by the first vocal sound ‘O’.  Not yet a recognizable word, it is a pure sound, something pre-verbal.  And by placing within this sound the symbol of the Cross – even before the text begins to unfold – I seek to foreshadow that Calvary and the Resurrection are what the Incarnation is ordered to.

In mm. 14-15, in the bass voices, the Cross motif (now inverted – and there is no symbolic significance intended by that) is not floating on an impressionistic cloud as in the earlier measures, but now takes on the role of clear, actual harmonic motion in the lower parts – it is, if you will, more tangibly incarnated as it permeates more deeply into the musical fabric – yet it remains, as the associated text says, “mystery.”

A musical symbol can also be used to develop metaphorical meaning if it is later associated with a different text than it was originally, and a text to which it seems not to bear any direct relationship.  In the Gospel of St. Luke Simeon tells Mary that her soul will also be pierced by a sword – a prophetic description of her unique participation in the suffering of Christ on the Cross.  And so here, as the text reads, “whose womb was worthy” – at the very moment, in other words, that the Eucharistic flesh is being knitted together in her womb – we see and hear the Cross:

Audio Excerpt mm. 43-52

And so, in most interesting compression of chronological time – not unlike the effect of a double exposure in photography – we are, in this moment, also brought to Calvary where Mary, her heart pierced with grief, stands in the shadow of the Cross.  And her singular role as Mother of God in the economy of salvation is underscored.

I will mention two other passages with strong symbolic content.  This first of these, mm. 53-65, features a traversal of tonal space from b-minor to the climactic F-major chord on “Dominum Christum.” Up to this point I have maintained rigorous modal purity around b-aeolian (the single exception is the c-naturals of mm. 20-22).  In this very pure modal environment, the traversal of a tonal space bounded by the distantly related centers of b-minor and F-major has a disproportionately large impact and imbues the words “Dominum Christum” (associated with the risen Christ) with great drama.

“ I am the Alpha and Omega”

Audio Excerpt mm. 53-65

Here, at the “Dominum Christum” the tonal center shifts decisively to C-major and remains there.   The new Creation, represented symbolically by the shift of tonal center, is fully realized.  And to further underscore this notion of the new Creation, I bracket the piece with the same musical passage, first in b-minor (see mm. 1- 8, above), and at the end in C-major:

Audio Excerpt mm. 80-93

“Behold, I make all things new.”

In the end, what matters most for the apologist of beauty is simple artistic excellence, of both means and effect.  Nothing, but nothing could be less persuasive than mediocrity.  I see the responsibility I have as a composer, then, to produce substantial and beautiful work not just as – or even primarily as – a career issue.  I strive to present the truth in beauty, even as I constantly seek to understand how to respond to it – and to inspire my performers and audiences to do the same.

A composer of contemporary art music, especially sacred choral music, Frank La Rocca earned degrees in music from Yale and the University of California at Berkeley.  IN THIS PLACE, a CD of his works from the last ten years, was recently released by Enharmonic Records (USA).