The Church is Alive with the Sound of Beauty

Classical composer Michael Kurek offers a fascinating look at music as a reflection of the beauty of God.

(photo: Register Files)

Classical composer Michael Kurek offers a fascinating look at music as a reflection of the beauty of God.

One day at Mass a few years back, my then-9-year-old son Jimmy, who has autism, asked loudly after a hymn, “Does anyone really like that song?”

That embarrassing moment has been a joke in our family ever since. But a new book on music taught me that there are certain qualities about a piece of music that draw us to it, even if we have no musical background whatsoever, and certain qualities that transcend and lift our souls to God.

Composer and Catholic convert Michael Kurek brings us a fascinating look at music in The Sound of Beauty: A Classical Composer on Music in the Spiritual Life

I knew nothing about music except what I like the sound of before I picked up this book. The author explains the acoustics of sound as part of God’s natural creation and how it can further our spiritual formation. explains how relativism has impacted even music today, with many people now believing that beautiful music is simply “in the eye of the beholder,” rather than seeing that certain characteristics in music draw us to it and stand the test of time. He explains the tendency today to “conflate goodness, truth, and beauty with preference, prejudice, and opinion.”

Today’s pop culture tells us that there is no such thing as universal beauty in music, yet Kurek shows that there is. Even better, music can transcend and direct us to Eternal Truth. 

After educating us in an easy to understand way the physics of music, he leads us into the metaphysics, highlighting the goodness, truth, and beauty of what he calls “aural creation.” He sees great musical compositions as “sculptures in sound” that communicate to us through hearing in the same way Michelangelo’s Pietà communicates through our sense of sight. His disappointed belief is that “artistic culture... has never been more polarized in history. I dare to say that never has high art, or fine art, especially contemporary classical music, been more utterly incomprehensible to the common man.”

There are various types of musical listeners. For some it’s background noise, for others it’s to associate themselves with a culture or image or style, for others it’s dance or rhythm. Kurek proposes that "faithful Catholics be ‘active’ and purposely select their own choices of music based upon the innate qualities of the music itself rather than upon some of the above criteria."

Rather than going with the flow of today’s thinking and agreeing that no one can say any one piece of music is more beautiful than another, that they’re all equal, we come to understand with the author’s guidance that “there are instead universal principles that lead a musical composition to become a timeless masterwork instead of a forgotten experiment.”

The music focus today is unfortunately far more on new works than on beautiful works. Universities hire music faculty who have been trained in the prevailing modern or postmodern aesthetic who then choose students to admit, and then orchestras and opera companies and the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) play and grant these newer works because they don’t want to be just a “repository of the past,” in spite of audiences saying they dislike the new music. Meanwhile, the classical music of our day has been relegated to a tiny marginalized genre. 

Kurek discusses the real function of music in Catholic liturgy. There’s a reason why the chorus at Mass is behind us, and that reason is for the worship of God. The music is to enhance that, and our focus is to be on the altar, not on the singers. He calls for a renewal of authentic classical and Catholic music — one that comes from “the mystery and the wonder of the sanctified human imagination, be it in fairy tales or traditional classic music. Unlike say, Narnia, with its specific allegory of Christ’s redemptive work, purely instrumental music can be an allegorical narrative more generally — of purposefulness moving through time toward a goal; of love, sadness, struggle, hope, and ultimate victory.”

The book is available from Ignatius Press.