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Interview, Frank La Rocca and Richard Sparks on the Mass of the Americas

Frank La RoccaThe Roman Catholic Church has, over the centuries, inspired a vast quantity of music, much of it still beloved and revered today. Masses written for use at churches all over Europe, and later around the world as Catholicism spread, have continued to expand the repertoire of liturgical music.

A recent and in many ways innovative addition to this body of music comes from the USA, from the pen of Frank La Rocca - a Mass composed with the aim of incorporating references and inspirations from the Spanish-speaking Catholic population of the Americas. Drawing on celebrations and songs from Mexican-American festival customs, as well as the native Nahuatl language of Central America - but weaving all these elements into a texture clearly descended from Catholic polyphonic traditions - it is a synthesis that says much about the nature of contemporary America.

I spoke to Frank, and to conductor Richard Sparks, to find out more.

Frank, can you tell us about how this Mass came to be, and what the connection is with the Benedict XVI Institute?

FLR: The Institute was nominally founded in about 2013, though it didn’t properly get off the ground until 2017. Its mission is to try to improve the quality of the music sung at Catholic Masses - especially in the Archdiocese of San Francisco where Archbishop Cordileone presides.

In May of 2018, the Archbishop said that he had his first commission for me: A "Mass of the Americas." As he explained: In the Archdiocese of San Francisco, on the Saturday nearest to the celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (which is December 12th), the Mexican and other Spanish-speaking Catholics have a remarkable pilgrimage that they undertake through the city. It stops at various shrines, praying at churches, and involves banners, costumes, even men on horseback - it's all evocative of celebrations that might have taken place closer to where the apparitions of Our Lady occurred in 1531 [Tepeyac Hill, today in the northern suburbs of Mexico City] at that time.

2018 was going to be the thirtieth such Cruzada Guadalupana, as they're known, and it so happened that that Saturday was December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. So this gave the Archbishop an idea - as a gift to these people who had been conducting their cruzada all these years, for their faithfulness and devotion, a Mass that somehow expressed the essential unity of all Catholic worshippers regardless of their mother tongue, regardless of whether their principal veneration of the Virgin Mary was in the form of the Immaculate Conception or Our Lady of Guadalupe. In Mexico and countries to the south, the Guadalupe aspect of the Virgin Mary really permeates everything - not just among the religiously observant, but all the way down into local cultural features.

And indeed this is true of the devotional hymn La Guadalupana that I use here - that had morphed over time, to become a tune sung by mariachi bands - crooning trumpets, violins, great big guitars, that robust Mexican harmonisation in parallel thirds - and you hear this on the streets, on the radio, at weddings, and at other celebrations.

So it'll leap out at people when they hear it woven into the music of your Mass?

Yes, exactly - yet of course one doesn't want such a Mass to simply become a pastiche of La Guadalupana quotations. And therein lay my challenge - how to integrate this very recognisable tune. To strip it of some of the more secular, I suppose, associations and re-locate it within a devotional framework. Not losing the identity of the tune but absorbing it somehow into the language of traditional high church sacred music in Catholic liturgies over the centuries.

How do you do that in practice, with the two Mexican tunes that you're using within the Mass?

I decided that it would be an important but not essential element. If someone doesn't know that there's this tune woven into various parts of the Mass, hopefully they can just enjoy it for its musical merits. But recognition was important too - so in the Processional, which uses the other tune El cántico del alba [the song of the dawn], I take that tune and just create a choral arrangement with the instruments.

Inbetween the penultimate and final verses I insert a bridge passage for organ alone which breaks out of the 3/4 of the Cántico and goes into the 4/4 of La Guadalupana, so that alone draws attention to itself. And the tune then is not harmonised just with simple alternations of tonic and dominant but in the manner of a Baroque falling-fifths sequence - I'm announcing the tune, not varied in any melodic sense but heard within an unexpected harmonic context.

Having done that, and hopefully planted the sound of the tune in the listener's ear, subsequent references to it might be more readily picked up.

Perhaps the most striking element of the Mass is the setting of the Ave Maria prayer in Nahuatl. The text’s nuances and emphases inevitably shift in translation from Latin into such a structurally different language; does this affect how you approach setting it to music?

It's very different to work with. The first step in the process was to make sure I had an authentic text in Nahuatl; and I thought that would be straightforward enough and I could find it online. I found one version, and that was fine, but then when I want to the next the text was different!

Does a "canonical" translation in Nahuatl even exist?

It does! That's the thing. In colonial-era Mexico around the 1630s, there was a priest named Don Bartolomé de Alva, who was himself of mixed heritage - his mother was Azteca and spoke Nahuatl and his father was Spanish. So he grew up with both languages. Once I'd managed to locate this version I considered it as authoritative as I was likely to get.

I wanted to evoke several things - firstly a sense of locality, which is why I use the marimba in that movement, since that's an instrument that was invented in Guatemala and southern Mexico. Secondly, in contrast to just about all the other movements in the Mass up to that point, it's a solo aria. Thirdly, while it clearly leans heavily on Western harmonic structures, it features what to Western ears is generally regarded as a pretty exotic scale - often called the Phrygian dominant - which is really just a Mixolydian mode with a flattened second and sixth degree. And it gives you that augmented second between scale degrees two and three at the bottom of the scale, and half-steps in other places where you don't expect them.

Frank discusses his Nahuatl Ave Maria in a short video for the Benedict XVI Institute.

At the same time, I'm not just indulging in exoticism for its own sake; this scale in turn has its roots in the flamenco tradition of Spain, which links it back to Spain, to those people who came over to colonise the Americas. That was the inspiration for using that particular scale; and as for the rest of it, I just wanted to write something that would sound beautiful and would capture the overflowing, florid nature of praises that the Nahuatl language uses. A very soaring and ornate melody.

The language and the literary traditions create almost a different approach to veneration, then?

Yes - and I try to adapt the music to that, as any text-setter would. Really trying to draw distinctive characteristics of the poetry out, regardless of language.

This recording features not just the choir and organ but a string orchestra and other instruments such as handbells and guitar. Can it also be performed by more modest forces, in settings where space or funding does not permit a full ensemble?

It certainly can - though in fact, talking about the recording itself also gives us a good opportunity to bring Richard in for a moment.

This recording would simply never have happened if it were not for him. After the initial premiere of the Mass we had the opportunity to have it sung at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, which is like the Hagia Sophia, or the St Peter's, of the US, and it became clear to the Institute that we really needed a respected, experienced expert in the field of choral music to help us get our house together, and to be able to execute these projects at a high level. So we approached Richard to participate in some of these projects; he has a very long history in choral music both here and in Europe.

Richard SparksRS: I became involved with the Benedict XVI Institute through a former student of mine, Rebekah Wu - she had the idea that, given the name Benedict XVI, the Institute really ought to have a sixteen-voice professional choir to do these projects. When the idea came up to do the Mass at the Basilica in Washington, DC, the plan was initially for the Basilica's own choir to perform it - it's a high-standard professional choir. For various reasons to do with scheduling they weren't able to do it, and so I was asked to put together a group from my professional contacts.

We were subsequently invited to do it in a liturgical context at St Patrick's Basilica in New York, so I was again asked to put together a group in New York. Trying to do this when Omicron was at its height was very complicated, but in the process of doing this I received an email from Blanton Alspaugh, who is a recording engineer with numerous Grammys for classical producing, and he asked me if there was any interest in recording it - so I spoke to the Board, to Frank and to the Archbishop, and we put together a budget.

The Mass of the Americas in its full liturgical setting, streamed from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC

So the recording wasn't actually part of the original plan?

No - the idea had been just to do the Mass in New York as we'd done it in DC, as another significant venue. But the Archbishop was committed, and convinced the Board to put up the necessary sums of money, and that's how it all came to be.

FLR: That's the high end, so to speak, of what we do. I was asked to condense the orchestral score down into an accompaniment for organ alone, preserving the recognisable sound of the Mass. This resulted in the Parish Edition of the Mass, for voices and organ only. People can also, at their discretion, introduce optional instruments to add colour - the handbells, for instance, or if they want to carry a marimba up into the choir loft! The only thing that I kept was the violin in the Ave Maria - that dialogue between the voice and the violin just had to be there.

Is this a one-off work, or do you see yourself writing other liturgical music with an eye towards the diversity of the Americas?

There is the possibility of that; the Archbishop has suggested that I should do something along the lines of the Mass of the Americas but incorporating five or six different languages - or rather, references to musical cultures. I'm not sure how I feel about that; I'd have to do it coming from a place where I feel I know, and understand, and respect, the music's origins.

There's another project he's proposed which is in the same sort of spirit - there's a regular ecumenical Vespers which the Archbishop celebrates with his counterpart in the Greek Orthodox church. So he's talked about my putting together a Greco-Roman service of Vespers.

A theme that underscores all his commissioning ideas is paying attention under-served communities. And connected to that, not so much an under-served but perhaps a misunderstood community and historical era in California, the era of the Franciscan missions. When in 2015 Pope Francis canonised one of the major driving forces of those missions, St Junípero Serra, on July 1st in Philadelphia - the first American saint to be canonised on American soil - they established that day as his feast day. This last year the Sacra Liturgia conference, which is a highly-respected musical and scholarly liturgical conference, was held in San Francisco, and the final Mass for that conference fell on July 1st - so the Archbishop commissioned me to write a Mass in his honour, which I did in a similar way to the Mass of the Americas. His favourite hymn, a vernacular hymn called Salve Virgen Pura, is used in the manner of a paraphrase mass and weaves its way through both a Processional and the Ordinary of the Mass; I also did a setting of a piece called El Alabado, which was always sung at the end of Masses during the mission era.

The Benedict XVI Choir, The Benedict XVI Orchestra, Richard Sparks

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