In reviewing Frank LaRocca’s September 20 release of Mass of the Americas on Capella Records, I mentioned that in times and places of great sin and strife, great beauty is possible. This particular pursuit of great beauty was released on September 23rd, and yesterday we learned that Frank LaRocca’s Mass of the Ages debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Classics Chart, just above the world’s most-performed living composer, John Williams of Star Wars. It’s a smashing success that will surely earn the Grammy Award for the album. And to make the success even sweeter, just a few seats down is a recording of chanting music by the Clear Creek Monks: Rorate Coeli: Marian sounds of Advent.
And if you also want the feeling of suddenly living in another universe, the film Mother Teresa: No greater love — the Knights of Columbus biopic, set to music by our esteemed fellow Catholic composer Sean Beeson — was the second highest-grossing film in American theaters on October 5th. And this little film about the Latin Mass – fair of times – is now filming her third part on the heels of millions Views and a national theater tour.
So many other successes fly just under the radar: Catholic composer James MacMillan’s new Violin Concerto is premiered and toured by phenomenon Nicola Benedetti, while Sir MacMillan joins the orthodox Arvo Pärt in keeping two of the most-performed living composers alive and only to lose to the American film composer John Williams. (MacMillan will be traveling to the US to speak at the Catholic Art Institute National Conference in Chicago; tickets are still available).
That these luminaries survived the stamp culture is itself proof that the stamp culture has no absolute power and that the thirst for beauty still exceeds the fury of this paper kite.
It’s almost as if God is trying to tell us something.
In fact, even in these times of rampant confusion, it seems possible to create an effective and commercially successful eventually counterculture. And yes, ironically, the number one song on the global Billboard charts is a song called “Unholy,” which clearly appropriates the sound of sacred choral music to speak of an adulterous affair. To oppose the above-celebrated success of sacred music is almost a made-to-order mockery, and that is arguably no coincidence.
But regardless, popular music shouldn’t be our concern as it’s no longer our domain to be supported or pursued in any way. It has become a demonically infested mafia-like industry, willing to bend to any low point it takes to create that next revenue stream, a shameless conglomerate whose suppliers are not as guilty as the businessmen who culture-destroy them enable publications. For example, long gone are the days when the president of NBC radio poetically expressed his responsibility for building and nurturing culture: Today’s music executives are the moral equivalent of drug dealers and pimps.
And if you dream of one day having pop culture worth consuming, you must first come to some difficult realizations. First, this downward trend began with the general relaxation of quality standards in the 1950s, so the rot has been growing for a long time. And secondly, that no culture can produce an authentic popular culture if its popular and advanced cultures are not initially intact. You must start at the roots to grow the tree, and this is a grand calling that will take decades to complete.
Possible models for building
an authentic counterculture
We may sigh to the good-natured and heartwarming movies and popular songs of the 1940s and 50s, but those days are long gone. Indeed, there is something naïve about glorifying the look and feel of the 1950s, because that was precisely the time when—despite a supposedly warmer and healthier populace—culture itself was being lost. The children growing up in this society would become the Woodstock generation and it is therefore the time when the greatest generation lost faith for all of us even before the liturgy was dismantled.
This should show us that despite the great power of culture, what happens at home cannot be replaced. A village cannot raise a healthy child, only a good family can. So if there’s a right first step in rebuilding a culture, or at least building an effective counterculture, it’s to start with our own homes and only later expand to building local communities. Don’t just turn off the TV at home, but replace that cultural void with a positive culture to avoid the “clean home” scenario.
Do your children take music lessons? Have you tried starting a house concert, theater reading or literary club? Is the music playing in the background in your home of high enough quality to have a real impact? Do you hear classical music, folk music and the names now fighting to bring beauty to this world? This is where the foundation of authentic culture is laid.
Here, too, the excesses of the arts are excised: children raised in sane environments where beauty is a second language become creators or supporters of authentic culture, and they have far less patience with the silliness and moral decay than often dominate ours artistic landscape. They will not be caught up in the rot so easily, and they will covet the alternative and become purveyors.
Build to the outside
Radiating from home, authentic culture is built in the schola you have found in your church community, or at least support financially if you cannot sing in it yourself. It’s built within that ambitious community choir or drama group, or by ensuring that everyone from Catholic home school co-operatives to Catholic schools of all ages have effective music instruction and drama programs. It is built in the arts organizations that can and should be built around such efforts, as we see in examples such as the music program at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago. We also look to Archbishop Cordileone’s Benedict XVI Institute in the heart of San Francisco, which made possible LaRocca’s classic Billboard #1, or to the remarkable work of the Catholic Art Institute.
And it’s built on money. Those who work with funding Catholic art will tell you that raising money for art is almost impossible. Politics and political causes bring in tens of millions of dollars, but it is amazing that the patrons of our time have still not grasped the clear maxim that “politics is behind the culture”.
Perhaps it is easier and more satisfying to fund something that can have an immediate political impact. But if our ancestors thought so, there would not be a single glorious cathedral today. What is needed here, along with significant efforts at funding and patronage, is patient foresight: LaRocca’s album, or the K of C biopic, or any of the above achievements all required major financial backing. Art doesn’t come about in a financial vacuum, and artists who have spent their lives educating themselves to be doctors of the soul and experts in their disciplines deserve to be able to pay their bills, too. (It’s hard to write the next screenplay or symphony or dance the ballet if you can’t afford to have a bad tooth pulled. It’s a lot easier to do it when you and your kids are financially struggling are secured).
So if you have the means to support authentic culture, chances are you will too also have a spiritual responsibility to do so, especially given the nature of our struggle at this moment. God has already provided our culture with a critical mass of composers, musicians, artists, architects, actors, film directors, and staunch Catholic creatives of all persuasions, and He seems (quite ironically) to be concentrating much of that talent in North America, where the Latin Mass has its has the strongest following. Lack of patronage is the only thing preventing the first great American renaissance. Recent events here have shown us what is possible and the only sensible response is to continue our efforts by whatever means we have.
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash