Truth, goodness and beauty.
That’s what classical music composer Dr. Michael Kurek, a parishioner of St. John Vianney Church in Gallatin, said he hopes to bring to his new role as the second Composer Laureate of the State of Tennessee.
The honor was announced March 18, after Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed into law the General Assembly’s resolution naming him composer laureate.
“It’s a recognition of a lifetime of work in Tennessee,” Kurek said. “I have deep roots in the state. …
“As an artist, you want to enrich and be in the community, and then if your name spreads out beyond that, that’s fine,” he said. “But to try to bypass your own community and be an artist of the world, it is not as genuine for me. I like the idea of blooming where I’m planted and establishing my craft and my base in my home state and then, if it spreads beyond that, wonderful.”
The road to Kurek receiving the honor began when Eileen George, a Gallatin City Council Member and a parishioner at St. John Vianney, attended a recent performance of his work. Following inquiries with State Rep. Jimmy Garrett, whose district covers part of Sumner County, they discovered the position of the composer laureate, which had been vacant since 1994, after the former composer laureate, David Van Vactor passed away.
From there, the matter was brought to the House Designations Committee of Tennessee, Kurek was interviewed, it was taken to the House of Representatives, and finally to the Senate before the governor officially signed the resolution into law.
“I think it’s a shame that it’s been vacant for so long because no one thought to do it,” he said. “I like the idea that I’m reviving it for others, that we’re getting it going again. If any state ought to have a composer laureate, it’s Tennessee with all the music here.
“It’s a lifetime appointment,” Kurek said. “There are no duties. It is a recognition of what I’ve already done to bring honor to the state.”
A lifetime of music
That honor to the state started as a young boy when he discovered classical music for the first time.
“My parents played classical music in the home when I was a small child, and I remember falling in love with it,” Kurek said. “I started as a listener, but then I started to hear music in my head, and it was driving me crazy, I had to get it out.”
He was a self-taught learner through grade school at Christ the King School in Nashville, before he took a music theory class at Franklin High School in Franklin, and even wrote pieces for the high school band.
He continued his studies in music theory and music composition at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, under Van Vactor, who was head of the university’s Fine Arts Department. It was there that he learned how to write for symphony orchestras.
“That was really thrilling,” he said.
After earning his Bachelor of Music Degree, he went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he received both his Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees in Music Composition before teaching at the Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University and the State University of New York at Fredonia before accepting a position as a professor of music composition at Vanderbilt University, from which he retired in May 2020 with the title professor emeritus.
He’s also won numerous awards and his music has been heard across the country and the world.
And through it all, his Catholic faith has been a driving force in his life.
Bringing in the Catholic faith
Although Kurek was born and raised Catholic, he said as an adult, he fell away from the faith, becoming an Evangelical Protestant. And while there were other entities at play, it was ultimately music that brought him back.
“One of the things that drew me to Catholicism in terms of music was the fact that ideally music is not for entertainment in the Mass. Music is to enhance the worship experience. We’re there for the Eucharist, not to see a show,” Kurek said. “Being in shows, seeing shows six days a week as a musician, I don’t want to go be entertained or entertain on Sunday. I want to worship.
“To a lot of people in my former tradition, worship meant being entertained and singing and entertaining but really … if you study the documents of Vatican II … music is purposely supposed to be non-entertaining (in the Mass),” he said. “It is just supposed to create a space in the building where you go in the house of God where he’s physically present in the Eucharist, in the tabernacle. … That all works together to create this ambiance of setting yourself into God’s presence and preparing yourself to receive the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of our faith.
“We have centuries of glorious music in our faith, and that’s one of the great things about Catholicism,” he added. “Catholics of all people should appreciate beautiful music of any kind, but especially classical music. It evolved under the patronage of the Church and under the blessing of the Church. … It is a wonderful thing to be an advocate for classical music as a Catholic.”
And it is through the music and his new recognition of composer laureate that he says is his chance to bring truth, goodness and beauty to others.
“For people who aren’t ready to hear about the Church or Christ, if they recognize that there is such a thing as beauty and then they marvel at it, it is just like in the first chapter of Romans. The gift of God, the author of beauty, is evident by the existence of beauty,” Kurek explained. “If they can take that step, they might say, ‘There must be a creator behind all this,’ and then they might go as far as to say, ‘How kind and how loving is such a creator to give us something that I enjoy so much and moved me so much.’
“Its beauty can reach people as a pre-evangelistic step to bring them out of darkness and into an awareness that there is a God, and their heart is searching to find Jesus Christ in the end,” he said. “It’s not a direct evangelistic thing, but it’s an indirect one, and for me that’s what I’d like to bring to others generally is truth, goodness and beauty if they’re open to it.”
Even though the title of composer laureate honors what he’s already done, Kurek said it doesn’t mean he won’t still try to contribute to the craft.
“One feels a sort of responsibility to keep contributing,” he said.
And he is with several upcoming shows and new projects including a new CD “Symphony No. 2 Tales from the Realm of Faerie,” which will be available in the fall, and includes a recording of his version of “Ave Maria” for women’s chorale.
He also had his Latin Mass parts for an adult choir recorded, a piece that is currently being sung regularly by the choir at St. Joseph Church in Madison. Additionally, his Broadway-style show “Dear Miss Barrett” will run May 19-28, 2023, at the Center for the Arts in Murfreesboro.
Finally, he will continue to come and speak to local groups having previously spoken to the third-order Dominicans; students at Aquinas College through which he received his catechist certification; students at St. Cecilia Academy; and, most recently, the Young Catholic Professionals. He has also done volunteer work with organizations such as Room in the Inn, delivering meals at Thanksgiving, and Habitat for Humanity.
He said he also plans to record new episodes of his radio show, “Catholic Adventures in Great Music,” which can be found online on the Crusade Channel and other affiliated stations.
“God has many purposes in our life. He’s always showing me the same lessons that he’s showing everyone, which is to live virtuously and to live faithfully and with faithfulness to my wife and kindness and charity,” Kurek said. “The music, just like anyone balancing their professional life and their Catholic sensibility, it’s how do you infuse a Catholic worldview into what you do for a living?
“In the arts, there is a danger of ego and also letting your ego be ruled by your latest review and the ups and downs of your career. It’s a temptation, especially for singers, you want to compare yourself to other singers, but God gave you your voice,” he said. “It’s not anyone else’s voice to try to compare to someone else. You can’t live on a rollercoaster of insecurity as a musician. You have to find your security in Christ alone.”
For more information about Kurek and his upcoming projects, visit michaelkurek.com.