On Tuesday 4 June, speaking at the second Melbourne Catholic Professionals (MCP) luncheon for 2024, acclaimed Australian composer Prof Mary Finsterer reflected on a career that has taken her in many directions, from Australia to the Netherlands and Hollywood, and from university to opera house, and concert hall to cathedral.

Two hundred and thirty guests gathered at Melbourne’s RACV Club for the luncheon. As well as giving Catholic professionals from a range of fields a chance to meet and form connections in a relaxed, convivial setting, it was an opportunity to hear how Prof Finsterer’s Catholic faith and her music have come together and interacted in often surprising and inspiring ways.

One of Australia’s most innovative composers, Prof Finsterer is CALE Creative Fellow at the College of Arts, Law and Education at the University of Tasmania and has been composer in residence with both the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (in 1992) and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (in 2023). Her work has been awarded and performed in Europe, the USA and Canada, as well as in Australia. Her compositions can be heard both on concert stages and on the big screen.

In September 2023, Prof Finsterer curated a program of sacred work at St Patrick’s Cathedral that included her own striking setting of the Stabat Mater, a 13th-century hymn that honours the suffering of Mary at the foot of the cross.

Prof Finsterer spoke with us after the luncheon, expanding on some of the themes covered in her speech.

A quest to explore music

Prof Finsterer, who has been composing music since her twenties, says her composing career began as ‘a quest to explore the whole idea of music, because I needed to understand it’.

Although she grew up playing music—especially the piano—she initially thought she would become a visual artist. ‘The reason that I didn’t,’ she says, ‘is because there is mystery about music that captivates me—still today. Music is an interesting synthesis between being highly connected to our emotional life and equally anchored in technique and science. I chose to pursue composition to explore how these two worlds interconnect.’

Reflecting on the things that have motivated and sustained her in her career, she points to having a strong work ethic. ‘Apart from my fascination with music, the fact is I love work. It is really at the heart of what shapes every day.’ The other is her strong foundation in her Catholic faith, something that both manifests in her life and unfolds through her practice of music, taking her in sometimes surprising directions.

She recalled in her speech how, in 1991, she was awarded the opportunity to travel to Montreal in Canada to collaborate for a month with six other international composers to write a work for the French-Canadian ensemble Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne. ‘Our group of seven composers became like a little family,’ she says. One of them, Marco Beltrami, would become not just a good friend and collaborator, but a leading film composer in Hollywood.

Many years later, when Beltrami suggested she join his team on composing some of the music for Die Hard 4, she took him up on it, using a Churchill Fellowship to go to Los Angeles to work on what seemed to be a ‘conveyor belt of composers’.

It was an exciting time, but also ‘a very interesting experience, because the industry values are very different there than what they are here,’ she says. ‘There are many composers working on these big blockbuster films. You just realise how small you are, like a little cog in this huge machine.’ This experience lay the foundations for her to take on the role of composing the screen music for the Australian feature film South Solitary.

Connecting music and faith

Another exciting but very different opportunity presented itself last year when Prof Finsterer was composer in residence with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, undertaking three projects with them. For the last of these, she curated a program of sacred music and composed a Stabat Mater that incorporated not just orchestral music but a choir, a soloist and spoken word.

Prof Finsterer is thankful to be at the point in her career where commissioners will say to her, ‘What would you like to do?’ It has allowed her, she says, greater scope to explore the connections between her music and her faith.

‘It’s a great opportunity for me to contribute to art music as a living tradition, because I believe that, especially in my area of Western art music, the connection between Catholicism and Western art music has been slowly eroded. It’s very important to acknowledge the fact that it’s the Catholic Church that has sponsored and nurtured art music since the beginning of Western art music. And we need to, I think, reclaim that.’

Our Lady’s ‘important message’

Prof Finsterer has ‘a special devotion to Our Lady,’ and ‘a fascination for all of her apparitions’, she said in her speech. ‘The wonderful thing about each apparition that Our Lady makes is that there’s a wondrous miracle. But also, there’s a very important message.’

In preparing for the composition of her Stabat Mater, Prof Finsterer focused her research on Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared in the 16th century. ‘I love this apparition on so many levels,’ she said, pointing out that Mary appeared to Juan Diego, a very humble Mexican peasant, on his way to Mass, and that she appeared as ‘a beautiful Aztec princess’.

‘Remember, this is 1531. The conquest of the Aztec Empire happened in 1519–1521. So, you can imagine … the Spanish are now the rulers … and Our Lady appears as an Aztec princess. It’s a very important message. She is not just the Queen of the newcomers. She’s the Queen for all peoples … And I love that because it means that the message to Juan Diego is a message for all of us.’

Reflecting on some of the rich symbolism in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that appeared on Juan Diego’s tilma (cloak), Prof Finsterer spoke movingly of the transformative impact of the apparition—then and now—inspiring such devotion, for instance, that ‘shortly after, 5,000–10,000 Aztecs began to come daily for baptism until 10 million were converted’, helping to end the previously widespread Aztec practice of human sacrifice. ‘What power in one image!’ she said. ‘So, I thought that it was really my duty to compose the Stabat Mater, to put Our Lady at the centre of the concert program, and to thank her.’

A symphonic ‘Rosary’

Although a Stabat Mater is usually choral, when it came to composing her final project for the MSO, Prof Finsterer wanted to adhere to an orchestral format. ‘The Stabat Mater is 20 verses, and each follows with poetic intensity,’ she explains. But because she was working for the orchestra, rather than treat each verse separately, she set the verses to a symphonic form, ‘so there are three different movements.’

‘I started with the first movement,’ she explains. ‘I love working with metaphor. When you take a motif, this can be a metaphor—something that can be integrated into the music and unfold within a musical form that is the story.

‘I had this very simple little idea, not very complicated, just a little counterpoint, two lines, a few notes. The top line was ascending, and then descending. The bottom line is in inversion. And this motif became my metaphor—it took the shape of a little bead. And this little motif then became a bead in the rosary. So, as a compositional device, I decided have this ‘bead’ as a recurring motif, which is like the string of beads in a decade of the rosary.

‘Hopefully, through the course of praying the Rosary,’ Prof Finsterer says, ‘our feeling of being connected to that spiritual realm increases. So as this bead, or motif if you like, recurs, with it unfolds multiple tiers of musical material. I wanted to have the Rosary at the heart of this piece. It is an extremely powerful prayer that has, quite literally, stopped wars.’

Another distinctive feature of this version of the Stabat Mater is a special section that Prof Finsterer composed as a kind of ‘prelude’ in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, incorporating a number of ancient Marian prayers, including the Ave Maria, Salve Regina and Sub Tuum Praesidium. ‘I had this idea that I wanted to integrate within the choral and orchestral texture a layer of spoken word, so there’s an interplay between speech and singing,’ she says.

The success of this idea, however, hinged on finding the right person to speak the words of the beautiful Latin prayers—someone who could deliver them ‘with the intention, the humility and the meaning’ the prayers deserve, and who had both ‘a beautiful voice and a confidence in delivery’. The only person who came to mind, she says, was Mel Gibson, so with the agreement of the MSO, she wrote to him and he graciously agreed, recording the prayers at Marco Beltrami’s studio in Los Angeles.

The legacy and power of sacred music

As well as composing, Prof Finsterer curates programs of music. ‘The way that I approach the curation of a concert,’ she says, ‘is to create a thematic thread, a story within which I am able to weave a vast array of genres and aesthetics that have developed through the centuries.’ Her hope is that by the end of the concert, the audience will feel they have been on a journey and are able to respond in an experiential way to questions like: ‘Where is the music here and now? What’s the relevance of the music in the past? How does that connect with us today? What is the legacy of this music, and how can I belong to it and it to me?

‘Because music that has flourished under the patronage and influence of the Roman Catholic Church is our history, our culture, it’s vitally important that we keep presenting Western art music in concerts, particularly sacred music, so that we look after our charge as custodians of what is a great legacy.’

Reflecting on how full St Patrick’s Cathedral was for the concert of sacred works she curated last year, and on the diversity of the audience, she recalls, ‘They were all fixed on what was a precious collection of beautiful, sacred musical works. And that’s the power that music has: to be a conveyor and a vehicle to bring people into an awareness of other realms—of spirituality.’

Prof Finsterer concluded her speech by quoting Bach, the composer who inspires her most because of his mastery of composition, the way he persisted in his musical vocation in the face of personal hardship and his humility, saying, ‘I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.’

The next MCP luncheon will be held on 15 August 2024 at the Park Hyatt and will feature international author and Catholic scholar Prof Helen Alvaré as guest speaker. Find out more here.

Banner image: Prof Mary Finsterer with Archbishop Peter A Comensoli at the MCP luncheon.