‘A Sound of Beauty, Truth and Goodness’: Catholic Composer Named Tennessee Laureate

Michael Kurek is a man on a musical mission.

Michael Kurek, who teaches at Vanderbilt University, also represents his home state through music.
Michael Kurek, who teaches at Vanderbilt University, also represents his home state through music. (photo: Steve Green / Vanderbilt University Photography)

NASHVILLE —  Composer Michael Kurek has been named composer laureate of the state of Tennessee. 

In 2007, Kurek became a Catholic revert, one who has returned to the practice of his faith as an adult. He cites St. (Padre) Pio for helping him “to understand that God truly loved and accepted me after I returned to the Church.” He added that that saint also helped him “to have courage going against the grain of academic music pressures.” 

He has also been influenced by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, among others. Their tales have influenced his composing.

As a college professor, Kurek has served for 14 years as chair of the Department of Music Composition at the Blair School of Music of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He retired in May 2020 in order to devote himself more fully to composing. It also allows time for his other great passion, namely, to popularize classical music. 

In 2019, Ignatius Press published Kurek’s The Sound of Beauty: A Classical Composer on Music in the Spiritual Life, a reflection on music theory through the lens of Catholic theology. The first appendix of the book offers a “beginner’s play list” for those who want “to develop a taste for classical music, starting with the most tuneful compositions.” Clearly, this is a man on a musical mission. 

The Register’s K.V. Turley caught up with Kurek via email at his Nashville home. 


You have been named “composer laureate” of the state of Tennessee by the house, senate and governor of Tennessee. What does this mean in practice? 

I was told there are no required duties. Rather, it is awarded simply in gratitude for having already brought honor to the state through my national and international artistic activities. In practice, though, I hope the prestige of the title might open doors for me to be an advocate for beauty in the arts, both in and outside of the state. 


Is it common for U.S. states to have a composer laureate? 

To my knowledge, only four states have had one: Tennessee, California, Arkansas and North Carolina. All four of the most recent laureates are deceased, and so I am the only living state composer laureate at this time.


England has a long history of such an office: Are you familiar with this history, and, if so, how does it influence your own perceptions for your new title? 

Yes, that composer is also known as “master of the queen’s musick (or king’s),” a member of the Royal Household of the United Kingdom. Since 1626, this composer has essentially been retained on staff to compose music for ceremonial occasions. I have offered to provide some of that kind [of] music, for example, at a governor’s inauguration, should it be desired. It feels right to have some kind of formalized recognition of the arts and artists by civic institutions and local governments as a collective statement that the arts are important to the culture and the ennoblement of that community. However, if the art that is fostered lacks beauty and is so esoteric that only a few elites can appreciate it, then I think it fails in that function, and people rightly do not want public funds to pay for it.   


This comes as you are about to release your latest recording. What can you tell the Register about that release? 

Symphony No. 2: Tales From the Realm of Faerie is my longest and largest classical work to date —  at 44 minutes, for a 92-piece orchestra — has been beautifully recorded in Europe and should be available through Amazon and others for preorder late this summer and early fall release.  

It is not the kind of modernist-style music some might expect, though, but a lushly melodic, neoromantic work that I believe anyone can enjoy. I have been much influenced by allegorical Christian fairy tale authors like Tolkien, Lewis and MacDonald and have tried to capture that spirit through music in this symphony. 


In terms of music, how has sacred music influenced your faith? 

All of my music is influenced by my Christian aesthetic, in that I strive for a sound of beauty, truth and goodness. There is a feeling of being on a journey with the goal of heaven, rather than the randomness one sometimes feels from modernist classical music. 

I also have a choral Latin Mass and an Ave Maria on the same album with the symphony, composed for a local parish choir. I aspire for this kind of music to be serious and reverent in a classical style, yet practical and easy enough for liturgical use by real choirs. (The sheet music is now available from CIRMusic.com). 


How do you view contemporary sacred music? 

If by contemporary you mean so-called “praise and worship” music, I think it is fine for youth rallies or home listening, but specifically in regard to Mass, it can often violate some of the very clear and specific guidelines for music at Mass laid out in the documents on music from Vatican II and in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. I have a couple of chapters about this in my book from Ignatius Press, The Sound of Beauty.


Is there enough networking between Catholic composers, musicians, patrons and festivals? 

As far as I know, any networking that exists happens rather by accident. It would be wonderful for the Church (for example, through the USCCB) to create an official newsletter for the arts whereby those of us who might feel isolated can learn about each other, place announcements about our concerts and recordings, and to serve as a forum for discussion of ideas. This would only be a starting point that might grow over time into conferences and Catholic fine arts centers around the country. As an educator, I would like to see faithful Catholic colleges and universities offer first-rate training in the fine arts, too. Most offer no music major at all and others only a practical course in sacred music. As the secular universities transition increasingly to new kinds of cultural values, Catholics might be looking for higher education in the arts that preserves our great artistic heritage and aesthetics. 


What are you working on next?

I am working on a commission for a full-evening ballet for symphony orchestra in homage to the late professional ballerina Raffaella Stroik, who was a faithful Catholic and daughter of the noted architect and Notre Dame professor of architecture Duncan Stroik and his wife, Ruth. Like my symphony, it will be a fairy-tale ballet in the beautiful choreographic tradition of Tchaikovsky. 


What do you listen to that inspires? 

I am deeply moved by the purely musical narratives of Beethoven and Brahms that move through time with a purposeful feeling toward a climax and by the pastoral beauty and emotion of the early 20th-century symphonists like Vaughan-Williams, Sibelius, Delius, Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Holst. I find that to compose music myself, to have something to say myself, I must devote a great deal of time to such listening, and with my full attention, not multitasking on other things. This is my wellspring.