The Foundation for Sacred Arts and the renaissance of Catholic music

The Foundation for Sacred Arts, a small nonprofit in Washington DC, has done the seemingly impossible: assembled a concert of world premieres of new music in which every piece was excellent. The occasion was the concert at 7:30 Saturday night, August 13 at the Crypt Church of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The performers were the National Shrine’s able and professional 16-voice choir, under the direction of Dr. Peter Latona. The method was to hold a contest for new sacred music, in two divisions, one being for settings of the new English Mass translation, to be judged by leading lights in Catholic reform church music.

The submissions were anonymous and judging was blind. This led to 4 of the six prizes going to one man, and judges asking, “Who is this guy? Is this Pawel Lukaszewski submitting?” No, it was 27-year old Daniel Knaggs, who teaches languages at Fr. Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor and learned his compositional craft at Bowling Green State University. And while his music doesn’t sound that much like Lukaszewski, it is of similar quality. I will admit that, before I heard the work and learned that there were in fact many many entries, I was a bit scandalized by Knaggs clearing the field. But the judges did not choose amiss; this is fine stuff.

What follows is in the nature of a review. I did not take notes, as I was too blown away by what I heard and didn’t think of it. I had meant to surreptitiously record the program to refer back to, but I left my MiniDisc’s mic in Windham. And I was on the program, so my opinions as a reviewer (at least concerning my own music) are tainted. I will include telling details as I remember them, and perhaps I will revise this later when I get my own copy of the recording. Anyone who was there and reads this is encouraged to add their own impressions in the comments.

The first work on the program  was not part of the contest at all, but was a commission from the Foundation to its music curator, Mark Nowakowski, formerly of the Cleveland Institute of Music and thus a library patron at my library. His Ave Maria, filled with gorgeous and strongly-inflected harmonies, made my wife cry. Of the works presented, this seemed most influenced by Lukaszewski.

There followed Knaggs’ He who eats my flesh (3rd place, Catagory 1). This struck me as very slightly overlong, through no fault of Daniel’s; it was one of the shorter of the required texts and needed to be at least 6 minutes long.

I enjoyed Knaggs’ Missa Sancte Joannes Apostoli, the third-place winner, more than his Mass of St. Teresa of Avila (2nd place winner which began the second half of the concert), because the language was richer and more complex. I suspect that Teresa was promoted because it would be easier for a parish choir to put together, among other reasons because it has accompaniment (the first half was entirely a cappella)  But I loved both. The choral Gospel Acclamation of Teresa adds a soprano descant for the repeat of the Alleluia, which I found a very effective move.

The 2nd half ended with Frank La Rocca’s setting of the Latin Credo. La Rocca is related to Nick La Rocca, founder of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, but there was no trace of that style in this piece, which was largely sober and even dark. The danger in setting the Creed is to use each tenet of belief as a source of imagery, risking disunity as a result. Frank’s setting had a recurring motive. Often people set “et homo factus est” as”Wow, He became man…how awesome”. La Rocca’s gritty setting of the words established that the Incarnation was the beginning of the Passion, that infancy must have been incredibly confining to God. This take on the text also smoothed the transition to the Crucifixus. “Et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam” was a love letter to the Church, and one of the lightest parts of the piece.

After the Knaggs Mass in the 2nd half was his Amen, Alleluia (Rev. 19:4-9).  What I found interesting about this setting was that Knaggs doesn’t do the kind of massive effects one might expect for this text, which seems at first glance to require Eton Choirbook-like walls of sound. It was really rather intimate, the core of the wedding of Christ with His Church for eternity.

The final work on the program was my Mass in Honor of St. Maximilian Kolbe, for SATB with organ, first prize winner. I did not name it that because it was to be performed on the feast of St. Kolbe, and I don’t care if you don’t believe that; it was just One Of Those Things.  The work is in the Phrygian mode, including its “Dufay C major” inflections. It begins with a short ninefold Kyrie, with the impassioned Christe giving way to a calmer 2nd Kyrie, as if mercy had been received. The Glory to God was quite fast and rhythmic; my style was in general more beat-oriented than the other composers. The Gospel Acclamation was perhaps the most traditional music on the program, a modified Gregorian alleluia with psalm-toned verse.  The Holy Holy flutters down like angel wings; I tend to like said-back Sanctuses. The slightly bombastic Great Amen is followed by the sober a cappella Memorial Acclamations. Dr. Latona opted to do one, as in a real mass. The Lamb of God ends simply, with parallel thirds traded between men, women, and organ. In certain spots the organ/choir tempo unity wasn’t quite perfect, but otherwise it was an exemplary performance, with expression, dead-accurate intonation and fine blend. And I’ve never had so many voices sing my Christian religious music.

There was a good crowd, with many religious. Works were well received. There are plans to make them available through commercial Web distribution.

This may be the richest time for Catholic choral music since the Renaissance. Besides the many fine composers listed by the Foundation, there is Kevin Allen in Chicago, and the local composers nurtured by the concerts of new liturgical music held every several years by the Schola of Immaculate Conception Church in Cleveland. People are being converted through church music (I was…so are people being driven away by current music as well?) and converts are pushing true Catholic music to the forefront. The synergy of adding converts may someday lead to the professionalization of Catholic music, something necessary to return to historically high standards.

The Foundation runs on a shoestring budget. The one 990 form I found online (from 2006) was shocking in its economy (and I say this as somebody who has done 990s for the Cleveland Composers Guild, not exactly a big-time 501c3). They are bigger now, but they need your contributions to meet their obligations. A gift of 1 or 2 figures is good; a check with 4 or more figures left of the decimal is even better. They run a tight ship, and do a lot of good. So do it, now.

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