NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Truth, goodness and beauty.
That’s what classical music composer Michael Kurek, a parishioner at 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.
“It’s a recognition of a lifetime of work in Tennessee,” Kurek said of the laureate designation. “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 told the Tennessee Register, Nashville’s diocesan newspaper. “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,” he added.
The Tennessee General Assembly passed a resolution honoring Kurek as laureate, and Gov. Bill Lee signed it into law March 18. The position had been vacant since 1994, when composer laureate David Van Vactor died.
“I like the idea that I’m reviving it for others, that we’re getting it going again,” Kurek said. “If any state ought to have a composer laureate, it’s Tennessee with all the music here.”
“It’s a lifetime appointment,” he added. “There are no duties. It is a recognition of what I’ve already done to bring honor to the state.”
Kurek discovered classical music for the first time as a little boy.
“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 self-taught through grade school at Christ the King School in Nashville, then took a music theory class at Franklin High School in Franklin, Tennessee. He even wrote pieces for the high school band.
At the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, he studied music theory and music composition under Van Vactor, who was head of the university’s fine arts department. 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, where he received both his master of music and doctor of musical arts degrees in music composition.
He taught 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. He retired from there in May 2020 with the title professor emeritus.
He has won numerous awards, and his music has been heard across the country and around the world.
Kurek was born and raised Catholic, but as an adult, he fell away from the faith, becoming an evangelical Protestant. Ultimately, it was music that brought him back.
In Catholicism, music is not for entertainment in the Mass but is meant “to enhance the worship experience,” he said. “We’re there for the Eucharist, not to see a show.”
Music is “supposed to create a space” in the house of God “where he’s physically present in the Eucharist, in the tabernacle,” he said. “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.”
“It is a wonderful thing to be an advocate for classical music as a Catholic,” he added.
Through this music and as composer laureate, he said, he has a 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,” he said, “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.'”
Kurek has 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.
His Latin Mass parts for an adult choir have been recorded and are currently being sung regularly by the choir at St. Joseph Church in Madison, Tennessee.
He 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 … 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,” he added, “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,” but “you can’t live on a roller coaster of insecurity as a musician. You have to find your security in Christ alone.”
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Peterson is on the staff of the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.