In This Place: In Praise of the Music of Frank La Rocca | R.J. Stove | CWR
The sacred music of the American composer is remarkable and unaffected, breathing the atmosphere of mystical devotion
Perhaps the most pernicious single delusion to have afflicted musical thought over the last two centuries is what might be called, for want of a comelier description, The Myth of Artistic Inevitability. The central teaching of this myth can be summarized in the slogan, “You can't keep a good man down.” More specifically, the myth maintains that musical genius, merelyby virtue of being musical genius, will always find a mass public; that no agency for evil can ever thwart this process; and that if a particular musician of stature fails to find a mass public, it is fundamentally his own fault.
Belief in the myth presupposes what operated to a limited extent in the centuries before 1914 but manifestly could not be relied on after that date: a European civilization sufficiently filled with noblesse oblige to regard musical genius as worth rewarding, in and of itself. Yet even before 1914 such a civilization was provisional, dependent largely on the caprice of individual patrons' effort.
Take Wagner, whose monumental self-belief possibly brought him closer than any other great musician has ever come to giving the “inevitable” dogma a fighting chance.But Wagner owed—and he himself knew full well that he owed—hisenduring world fame to, above all, a House of Wittelsbach accident. Without King Ludwig II's patronage, several of Wagner’s masterpieces would have been unperformed and in some instances unwritten. A Wagner without Ludwig II would have occupied something like the same niche in general culture now assigned to, say, Charles-Valentin Alkan: in short, renowned (rightly or wrongly) more for freakishness than for actual lasting merit.
Moreover, the Myth of Artistic Inevitability cannot even begin to explain how so many musical giants were forgotten, for generations on end, once they had died. Monteverdi and Heinrich Schütz in the seventeenth century, Telemann in the eighteenth, Johann Nepomuk Hummel in the nineteenth: all these men—who had substantial, and deserved, reputations in their lifetimes—fell so completely out of favor within a few years of their respective deaths, that it was almost as if they had never breathed.
Still, the main reason the myth is absurd is that it utterly fails to take totalitarian cultures, or even ordinary modern Western leveling,into account. Suppose that there had emerged in the twentieth entury a composer who combined the gifts of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven in his own person. Those gifts, far from guaranteeing him popular acclaim and a berth in Grove’s, would not have done him a blind bit of good if he had been stuck amid the Holodomor, or amid Khmer Rouge Cambodia, or amid Maoist China’s Cultural Revolution, or (if he had possessed Jewish ancestors) amid Nazi-occupied Poland. Indeed, his exceptional abilities would have increased the likelihood of his being hunted down like a rat.
All this serves as a prelude to noting several facts: first, that there flourishes in America a composer named Frank La Rocca; second, that his creative talent for religious music is remarkable; third, that one can have been a professional musician—indeed a professional church musician—for decades without having encountered his name, let alone his output; and fourth, that those in that ignoramus category had included myself, until his CD In This Place, was recently brought to my attention—and by a non-musician! According to the Myth of Artistic Inevitability, such neglect could never have happened. I would, for certain, have discovered La Rocca’s work in the quotidian course of events; every decent-sized musical reference book would have alerted me to that work; it would be needless to accord him wider fame by writing the present article; and pigs would fly.
A good case can be mounted for listening to all unfamiliar music, as it were, “blindfolded”. In other words, for judging it entirely upon what the ear apprehends, with no biographical or other data to affect one’s pleasure or distaste. Accordingly, before seeking any information about La Rocca’s career, I began playing the CD, and I concentrated exclusively on what I heard.