The Sound of Beauty

This book is a precious jewel to be cherished

Stained glass
Stained glass (photo: Ian Kelsall / Pixabay/CC0)

I first met Catholic composer Michael Kurek many years ago at a talk I was giving in Nashville. We struck up an instant friendship but didn’t meet each other again for several years. It was not until I became Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville that we really got to know each other. I often stayed with Michael and his wife Crystal, a very fine musical theater performer, during my monthly sojourns in Nashville. On many a joyful evening we waxed as the day waned, discussing Catholic culture in general, and music and literature in particular. It was such a privilege to be able to ask Michael all my inarticulately expressed questions on music. He was both maestro and mentor. His own compositions were a great inspiration and his knowledge of music opened new vistas of aesthetic appreciation for me. I longed for others to have the opportunity to learn from him as I had done. I wanted others to gain the knowledge and understanding of music that Michael is uniquely able to offer, and, more important, I wanted them to receive the wisdom he has accrued from a life of musical composition and the years spent as a Professor of Music at Vanderbilt University, all of which had been baptized by the deep Catholic faith to which he had returned after years in the Evangelical wilderness. 

With the foregoing in mind, it will not surprise the reader that I am overjoyed that Michael Kurek’s The Sound of Beauty has been published. I know of no other books on music which articulate the Catholic aesthetic so masterfully. This, in itself, makes this volume a precious jewel to be cherished. And yet, as a rarity, it is never rarefied. It never loses touch with the reader. On the contrary, Dr. Kurek takes us by the hand and leads us through the physical basics, explaining music in purely material terms. It is only after we have mastered the physics of music that he leads us into the metaphysics, showing us the goodness, truth and beauty of aural creation and aural creativity. He shows us how great musical compositions can be considered “sculptures in sound,” communicating to our sense of hearing as Michelangelo’s Pietà communicates to our sense of sight. He also stresses the importance of narrative in music, inviting analogies with literature. One thinks perhaps of the story being told by Beethoven in his Sixth Symphony and its evocation of a rural idyll, with woodwind instruments mimicking the song of the nightingale and cuckoo, or one might be reminded of Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major and its suggestive aural allusions to a trout swimming in a stream, or of Debussy’s La mer or Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending

Such narrative can be found in Dr. Kurek’s own internationally acclaimed compositions. In discussing the inspirational and aspirational aspects of his Second Symphony, he states that he hoped to create “a musical counterpart to the allegories of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis in the form of a purely musical ‘fairy tale in sound’ containing hidden Christian symbolism.” He has written music inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the sleeve notes to his chart-topping CD, The Sea Knows, illustrate the visual nature of his musical eye. His Serenade for Violoncello and Harp is a love song, composed for his wife, in which the “long-breathed melodies” of the cello “seem to play the role of the lover singing under a balcony.” In Savannah Shadows, Dr. Kurek describes the “mysterious harmonies and long, exotic, drooping phrases” as “a kind of musical Spanish moss.” In the “constantly evolving, descending melodic lines” of Moon Canticle, Dr. Kurek seeks to simulate “a continual shower of moonbeams falling upon an enchanted forest of shifting harmonic shadows.” The literary connection is most manifest in the title track of the CD in which The Sea Knows is an aural re-presentation of a short verse with the same title written by Dr. Kurek, the tone poem harmonizing with its literary namesake and illustrating it wordlessly: “Like peeling back successive layers of an onion, the tonal structure of the work is carefully designed to reflect the poem as a process of self-discovery. … The cello’s more discursive and overtly emotional part might represent the perspective of the person in the poem standing by the sea, while the lush richness or the full string section would seem to evoke the vastness and omniscience of the sea itself.” In the musical composition, as in the poem, the sea serves as a metaphor for God, in the presence of whom the watcher at the ocean’s edge is moved to contemplation. 

It is this spirit of what might be called musical realism which animates Dr. Kurek’s whole approach to “the sound of beauty.” He sees music as a mainstay of human culture and as a manifestation of God’s grandeur in the cosmos and in the God-given creative gifts of those who compose, play and listen to music. As a realist, both philosophically and musically, Dr. Kurek takes us beyond the relativism of those who believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder to show us that it is in the thing beheld. He shows us how to avoid the relativist error of confusing and conflating goodness, truth and beauty with preference, prejudice and opinion.

Preference, which is often kindled by prejudice, has nothing to do with beauty. Many young people prefer rap to Rachmaninov but this says nothing about the relative merits of either form of “music.” One doesn’t like rap because of its beauty but because of its message, the ugliness and brutality of the rap reflecting the ugliness and brutality of the message. By way of contrast, one does likes Rachmaninov because of its beauty, which is inseparable from our sense that it is also good and true. It violates our sense of reality to say that Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is ugly or bad; it is clearly neither, whether we prefer it to other forms of music or not. There is something about what it is that transcends our opinions and prejudices. 

Let’s leave the final words to Dr. Kurek himself, discoursing on “the mystery and the wonder of the sanctified human imagination, be it in fairy tales or traditional classical 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.”

This essay is adapted from Joseph Pearce’s Foreword to The Sound of Beauty by Michael Kurek and is republished with permission.