The Intersection of Catholic Faith and Modern Classical Music

An Interview with Mark Nowakowski

I recently had the opportunity to interview Polish-American maestro Mark Nowakowski, a musician at the frontier of modern classical music, to say nothing of his family’s devotion to their Catholic faith. Mark recently released his new album, “Blood, Forgotten,” performed by the Voxare String Quartet. Here is the transcript of the interview, in which Mark answers some questions about his Catholic faith and how it intersects with his musical compositions.

Nowakowski: Thank you, Justin, for allowing me this wonderful opportunity.

McClain: What is the role of faith for you and your family?

Nowakowski: It is the root, the lens through which everything can be seen and understood. It is the subject of dinner table conversation, and we do our best to pray with the kids every morning and evening. Now don’t get me wrong, this is not a Facebook picture of a perfect family. Having two parents working full-time just to make ends meet for the raising of three small children, and having deep and purposeful desires for how we want to educate and form these children, means that we reach the end of every day having failed in our goals and in a state of exhaustion. And if you’re not careful, that exhaustion can become a spiritual exhaustion as well. So part of this role is to allow faith to also help us balance everything and live this current time as well as we can, and to help us find the strength to pursue truth, beauty, goodness, and the paying of bills in a culture designed to shun the former and facilitate the latter.

As to my work, faith is everything. Again, it is the root and the lens, the expression of the echoes of origin and destiny. It is also the means through which aesthetic discernment can be sought, so that you can try to create the works that – as Henryk Gorecki said – people may need, as opposed to the ones that a confused society may want. This is the point at which art can become an authentic vocation.

McClain: How has your heritage as a Polish-American Catholic shaped who you are?

Nowakowski: There is a particular flavor to Polish Catholicism; it drifts a bit eastward while somehow preserving some of the mystery that was lost in so much of the Catholic world from the aesthetic and cultural flattening effects felt after Vatican II. Having John Paul II – my own hero and the source of my conversion – definitely helped, but also the long line of Polish saints from which to draw inspiration. The Polish musical tradition, from its earthy folk music to its deeply ascetic religious songs to its romantic musical and literary traditions, also had a deep formative effect on me which later helped me to discover my authentic voice as a composer.

McClain: What is your favorite piece of classical music, and why?

Nowakowski: That’s almost an impossible question to answer. There has been so much great music written that – almost like the depth of the magisterium – a lifetime does not suffice to experience it all. (That is also why I am generally against our current popular music and entertainment culture; there is too much quality available to give even a single precious moment to artistic mediocrity.) I can’t pick between all of the great medieval and renaissance music out there, while like many composers I’m always returning to the greats – [J.S.] Bach, Mozart, Beethoven – for inspiration and pleasure. Obviously, Chopin’s piano works are vital, as well as the art songs of that era, such as [Robert] Schumann’s “Dictherliebe.” Then there is our great American tradition, from Ives to Barber and everything in between. Perhaps my favorite modern works come from the recently deceased Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, whose iconic and best-selling “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” provided me with the answer to how to move forward with aesthetic authenticity while surrounded by the diktats of academic modernism, while his choral works (which I think belong on every Catholic bookshelf) are a fountain of great peace and repose. (The stunning “Miserere” album, recorded at Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago, remains my favorite album.)

Among those still living, Arvo Pärt exercises a particular influence, especially in his marriage of Christian mysticism and the process of composition, and how this has (despite a hostile culture) still allowed him to become the most performed composer in the world. James MacMillan comes to mind, as well as Pawel Lukaszewski, whose “Via Crucis” may be the first sacred music masterwork of the twenty-first century. To explore all of this beauty is an unending and great joy available to everyone.

McClain: As a composer, how did you come to embrace sacred music?

Nowakowski: I first learned about sacred music – real, authentic Catholic music – in my music history classes as an undergraduate. At that time, I was a lapsed Catholic, and I couldn’t understand how I had attended church for eighteen years and had never heard Gregorian chant, or polyphony, or any of the great sacred masterworks. Eventually, as I returned (or arrived for the first time) to the deep well of Catholicism, I frankly couldn’t stand attending parishes which didn’t understand their own liturgy and had no concern for the aesthetic magisterium. I would later become a parishioner of Saint John Cantius in Chicago, where the marriage of authentic Catholic liturgy and authentic Catholic culture is pursued with both verve and great humility. It is really something to experience midnight Mass with Mozart, or to hear some of the great polyphony written by underground composers during the Elizabethan persecutions, or the full repertory of plainsong. It is equally gratifying to watch the effects of this combined religious and aesthetic formation on the young people there, who are growing up suffused in such authenticity and quality and sometimes not realizing how lucky they are. As for myself, I knew that my meaning as a composer was to be found as a part of this tradition.

Yet most of my music isn’t strictly “sacred” music, because authentic sacred art is that which is applied to the liturgy. Unfortunately, there are not many opportunities for living composers in the Church recently, though there are signs of this situation slowly improving. However, religious music, or music emerging from religious experience and fervor, is quite potent and common, and I can easily say that everything I have written in my career is religious in nature, simply because I am a religious person for whom the act of composition is an act of contemplation and prayer. My greatest hope is, whether the listener is encountering something simple (like a short choral work) or something much more aesthetically difficult (like one of my string quartets), that they can join in the contemplation from which these works emerged.

McClain: Why does the Church need to value sacred music now more than ever?

Nowakowski: Because it is our great treasure, because it is authentically Catholic, because our children deserve nothing less, and because the New Evangelization is absolutely dead in the water if we don’t leave pedestrian artistic expressions at the church door and instead embrace a full flowering of authentic Catholic culture. We’re likely entering a new cultural dark age, Justin, and I wouldn’t be alone in surmising that Western civilization is circling the drain at an alarming and increasing rate. During the last Dark Age, Catholic communities became centers for not only maintaining, but creating, authentic beauty. However long this new cultural malaise lasts, this is what we have to do now. I will be frank: one shouldn’t pick one’s parish because it has better music. That being said, if one’s parish is pursuing actual Catholicism, it will have better music. And if it doesn’t have the resources to hire musicians and pursue polyphony, it will at least have chant at the heart of its liturgy, because its leadership will know that this music has “pride of place” in our liturgy, and that it is supremely practical for the parish of humble means to pursue. Knowing these things, I must admit to retching in my soul every time I attend a Catholic church where I am forced to participate in a guitar-led “all are welcome” farce. Such expressions of liturgical music are not Catholic, they are culturally limited rather than universally humble, they are against the specific wishes of the Catholic Church regarding liturgical music, and they’re worth about as much as that monstrous tie-dyed tapestry hanging where an icon or real altar once stood.

James Flood, the founder of the Foundation for Sacred Arts, once taught me something that changed my life as an artist: the Church is not a blank aesthetic canvas upon which to impress my own opinions. Rather, Mother Church has asked for something in particular where sacred art and music are concerned, and that is what we should be pursuing.

McClain: Tell us about your new album, just released.

Nowakowski: This is a long project finally coming to fruition. The fantastic Voxare [String] Quartet from New York City has released a recording on the Naxos label, the largest distributor of classical music in the world, and a wonderful champion of new music. It features some of my string works that have something in common with Polish culture and history. The title work, “Blood, Forgotten,” is a searing multimedia memorial to the victims of World War II in Poland. The first string quartet – “Songs of Forgiveness” – draws from both folk songs and my own spiritual musings. The second quartet – “Grandfather Songs” – is really an homage to the passing Solidarność generation in Poland, as well as the great cultural foundation which made their accomplishments possible, while also being a nostalgic reflection on the blessings of my childhood. The final piece on the album – “O Sleep for Me, Sleep” – is a setting of an ancient lullaby which I put together after the birth of my first child. Voxare plays this music better than I could ever hope for, and I am beyond satisfied with the production quality of the entire effort. I think that this is highly serious music that nevertheless extends a hand to the casual listener, giving them a chance to enter into such a deeper musical experience. I’ve gotten humbling and wonderful feedback on this album from a variety of listeners, letting me hope that a diverse audience can really get something valuable from our efforts. I’d be thrilled if your listeners gave it a chance.

McClain: And your forthcoming book, In Pursuit of Beauty: A Catholic Examination of the Arts and Aesthetics?

Nowakowski: I’m working on the final draft right now, and hope to submit it to publishers before the year is out. Essentially, I have discovered for myself that there has been very little written about beauty and aesthetics in the history of the Church. This is probably because the Church has been simply so active in pursuing authentic Catholic art over the millennia, that such a conversation wasn’t really necessary. Yet after a century of rupture and the rise of modernism and populism, we are left confused and in need of an aesthetic reassessment. In the book, I begin with the question of what beauty actually is from the perspective of the great Catholic mystics, and build an exploration of Catholic aesthetics from there. The book also strives to express a grand, but also practical, vision of how to move forward with continuing our great tradition in modern times. Hopefully, when it is done, we can talk about it again together.

McClain: The Church needs more Catholic artists. Why is art – whether visual or performing – in the Catholic tradition so critical to the transmission of faith?

Nowakowski: All you have to do is look at those parishes which have embraced full Catholicity (including their artistic and especially liturgical lives), and you will see vibrant centers of faith, creativity, learning, and charity. What does the world have in comparison to our great aesthetic magisterium? It offers reality television, short thrill music, and the kind of “canned” culture that author Michael O’Brien so ably describes. It is cheap and shallow, though it is made with incredible gloss and finish and cannot be competed with for its short-attention-span appeal. We shouldn’t imitate it or bring it into our churches. We should, rather, be authentically Catholic and offer the world a radically different and superior choice. I think that some will accuse me of over-stating the importance of artistic expression in the Church’s life. I would invite them to read Saint John Paul II’s Letter to Artists (1999), or heed the words of Pope Benedict XVI, who described how martyrdom and artistic expression were the two most powerful witnesses of Catholic truth. God is calling many talented young men and women to become artists for his sake, and any parish embracing and encouraging their efforts will be the richer for it.

McClain: What is your favorite scriptural passage, and why? Also, from the perspective of a Catholic composer, what are signs of hope that you have observed in today’s Church?

Nowakowski: This is probably a very common pick, but Psalm 23 has always spoken to me as both a Catholic in a hostile culture and a composer in an indifferent culture. It reminds me that the Lord is our sustainer, and always leads me to Psalm 46:11 – “Be still, and know that I am the Lord” – and 1 Corinthians 3, where “it is the Lord that grants the increase” (v. 6). It reminds me also to be grateful not only for occasional successes, but also for the more common privilege of the struggle, because the one we struggle for is worth every sacrifice.

Justin McClain

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Justin, his wife Bernadette, and their three children (John-Paul, Mary Christine, and Thérèse) live in Bowie, Maryland. Justin has taught theology and Spanish at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, since 2006. He has degrees from the University of Maryland - College Park, the Universidad de Salamanca (Spain), and Staffordshire University (England), and he has studied philosophy and theology at Seton Hall University, the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and the University of Notre Dame's Satellite Theological Education Program. Justin has written for Ave Maria Press, Aleteia, EpicPew, Our Sunday Visitor, Catholic365, Church Life, and various other publications. He is on Twitter (@McClainJustin).

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