Dispelling the 12-tone blues

18 04 2010

Introducing the the music (and writing) of Frederick Stocken. Frederick is a Catholic British composer whose credits include his Mass, the Missa Pacis, commissioned by the London Oratory, the best-selling Lament for Bosnia and a symphony commissioned for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and premiered at the Royal Albert Hall in London. His serious but accessible musical style has deep roots in the tradition of European classical music. Other commissioned works include ballet, choral and piano music. I first met him several years ago when I went to the monthly meeting in London of the Catholic Cultural Group, run by Catholic writer, Joanna Bogle.

She introduced us to Frederick, that evening’s speaker who, she said, believed that good music is beautiful music and the purpose of composing is to bring glory to God. This sounded fine, but in itself didn’t necessarily mean much. I had come across a number of composers who said the same things, but it was difficult to hear how their ideas were reflected in their music. However, it was quickly clear that as usual, Joanna was right and Frederick was not one of these moderns in a traditionalist’s frock coat. Rather he was radical traditionalist, who was genuinely departing from the tired modernist dogma. First of all he played a selection of recordings — from his Mass, the Missa Pacis — and I could hear the difference. It was appropriate to its setting and surprise, surprise, beautiful – you can hear for yourself if you go to his website www.frederickstocken.com. And his talk was to prove a turning point for me, because I realised that many of his ideas about music could be applied to art. He described how there is structure and form to music, which is the basis for its beauty, and how the development of this can be related to the Faith, just as its abandonment can be related to rejection of the Faith and the development of Modernism. He also emphasised how when we follow the traditional musical principles it does not stifle composition, but liberates it. The variety of music produced is far greater than that which has been produce since they were abandoned. This was the important point for me that applied in art too: traditional principles liberate the creative spirit.

To quote from his article in the journal of faith and culture, Second Spring: ‘I think I can even demonstrate the dependence of music on faith historically.  It always amazed me how such disparate musical styles as baroque, classical and romantic music (in fact the whole range of music from Josquin des Pres to Bruckner) has far more that unites it than separates it.  In this period of five hundred years, a period in which music retained faith in its musical laws, the supremacy of the so-called musical triad (otherwise known as the common chord) remained inviolate.  The key system was expanded though never changed, and the chordal relationships within keys remained constant.  In terms of basic musical structures, form and chordal procedure, a Josquin motet works in a surprisingly similar way to a Bruckner symphony.  This is astonishing.  But what happened to music as it entered the last century?  Those laws, based essentially on faith rather than proven by science, were rejected.  Is it mere coincidence that in the very year, 1907, that Schoenberg began ripping the intestines out of music in his first atonal compositions, Pope St Pius X was issuing his encyclical Pascendi Gregis against Modernism?  To the casual historical observer the activities of an atonal composer and a Pope shoring up the theological purity of the Catholic faith would seem entirely separate.  But with hindsight we can discern a relationship between the decline in Catholic, and indeed in all Christian, belief in the West and the collapse of music.  Many of those who rejected religious faith at that time still believed that the common-sense moral assumptions of their culture would remain in place, and they were proved wrong during the twentieth century.  In a similar way, the commonly accepted musical laws of Western culture could not survive the loss of the faith which provided a context in which they made sense.’

It was after hearing his talk that I wrote my first published article, also in Second Spring called The Way of Beauty in which I first set out my ideas of how we can look to tradition to guide us in the future. This is the article that contained the first presentation of the principles that became the basis of what later became the programme at Thomas More College and after which this site is named.

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