Editor’s note: This is an installment in our series on the evangelizing power of beauty. In this series, we are looking at how beauty can bring us to God, convey a sense of the sacred, point us toward the Truth, and even help us know how to be good. Through essays and interviews, this series will examine how the beautiful can lead us to the true and the good.
Michael Kurek is an American composer of classical music, serving as a professor of composition at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of The Sound of Beauty: A Composer on Music in the Spiritual Life (Ignatius Press, 2019), and has written for The Imaginative Conservative, Faith & Culture, and other outlets about the importance of beauty in music. This is in opposition to the 20th-century trend, in which classical music was commonly considered analytically, mathematically, and disconnectedly. Composers challenged themselves to come up with the most avant garde composition possible (for example, John Cage’s 4’33”, which is a piece that consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence—or, rather, of the ambient sounds of the listener’s environment). All the while, however, composers such as Hubert Parry, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, Charles Villiers Stanford, and many more continued to write beautiful music, understanding the profound effect beautiful music can have, and the important role it can play. (See also Robert Reilly’s magnificent Surprised By Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music.)
Kurek spoke with Catholic World Report about the evangelizing power of beauty, specifically in the way that beautiful music can direct the soul toward God.
Paul Senz, for CWR: What role does beauty play in evangelization?
Michael Kurek: Joseph Pearce makes the point that people will no longer listen to evangelization in words, but if you can touch their hearts through beauty—either the beauty of the liturgy or beautiful music or something like that—then people will be more receptive. They secretly envy that beauty and joy that Christians have, and they secretly want to be a part of it.
That was actually true for me. I was kind of a hardened atheist at one point in college, and the other college students were having Christian fellowship and singing songs and everything, and I was like Scrooge. Just sort of self-alienated. But I secretly envied them, and I think that planted the seed that eventually made me at least listen to rational arguments. I still needed to use my mind and hear apologetic arguments and all that; but it predisposed me, emotionally, to want that. I wanted to believe it if I could. Whereas, if I had not had that beauty to fertilize the soil, I wouldn’t necessarily have been disposed to that, ready to listen to it.
CWR: So beauty can help to “break the ice,” to show people that there is something attractive there?
Kurek: People won’t listen to the message anymore. They get turned off too quickly in their pre-disposition against it. But you can surreptitiously affect them through works of beauty that have religious underpinnings. If it’s just Beethoven or something, that’s not necessarily going to have the same effect as some kind of liturgical music might have, in my opinion. There are plenty of atheists who recognize the beauty of secular music and don’t ever come to the knowledge of God from it. But if it’s something that’s specifically Christian that causes them to envy a little bit—as Scripture says, heap burning coals on their head [cf. Proverbs 25:22]—then that opens their heart to listen.
CWR: Do you practice what you preach in regards to your own music?
Kurek: My particular niche in this situation is that I’m a classical music composer. We are expected to write in an avant garde style. I’m like the bad boy in reverse who writes beautiful melodies that people will like. To me, taking that position is pretty radical. I’ve been black-balled from most things. I don’t bother to apply for grants anymore from the National Endowment for the Arts and places like that; they’ll just dismiss my work out of hand. And yet, if I can create beautiful classical music that really moves people, and they come up to me in tears after the concert, I hope it has an impact.
St. Francis is supposed to have said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and use words when necessary.” Well, it is necessary to use words at some point. If you only do pre-evangelization and never give them the Gospel too, in some way, you’re not really doing it.
CWR: Can music really work as a tool of evangelization, though? Isn’t it just another “pretty thing”?
Kurek: I’ve sent the blurb about the book [The Sound of Beauty] to all my non-Christian and Protestant acquaintances. I’m hoping they’ll read it, and maybe it will influence someone. But I do think that if we pander to the lowest common denominator in art, in music, to try to draw people into the Church with some kind of performance, and they’re not really hearing something transcendent and sublime, then it’s just going to be another great performance. If they experience the full package of liturgical beauty, it can have a big impact.
At my parish, we use traditional music, and we’re in downtown Nashville. We get a lot of visitors who come to town for country music, and they look like a deer in the headlights sometimes, because they’ve never seen a traditional Mass. But you can see that some of them are really moved; it’s the first time they’ve ever heard chant, and a really reverent presentation of the liturgy, with beautiful music. We have a great choir. We have incense. We have the sense of the sacred.
CWR: There is a distinction between beautiful music, and music that evokes the sacred through its beauty. The slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is stunning and hauntingly beautiful. I once heard someone say about the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Resurrection”), “How can anyone heart that and not believe in the Resurrection?”
Kurek: The thing is, post-modernism is really a crisis of faith, because it doesn’t believe in itself. It’s all a wink and a nod and a quotation of something else. Whereas with something like the Mahler piece, the person making it really believes something.
I quoted in my book something from the movie Braveheart. There’s a scene where you can see a car parked in the background that was left there by mistake. It breaks the spell—and that’s what post-modernism does. It doesn’t believe in itself, so it doesn’t enter into this kind of narrative. But we live in a faceless age where no one can believe in anything, and it’s considered unsophisticated to believe in it. In my circles they won’t allow you to talk about beauty or emotion in music, because it’s too naïve. So it’s a radical thing, more than we realize. And I think that spilled over into the culture.
In George MacDonald’s essay on fairy tales, he asks what if you had a renaissance fairy tale, and someone showed up speaking in a Cockney accent? It breaks the spell. So many of these new fairy tale movies, like Shrek, Tangled, Enchanted—they have pop culture references, so it breaks the spell. It represents the same cynicism, teaching kids not to take anything very seriously or believe in it, but to think in this “sophisticated” and cynical way.
Part of beauty is not just that it’s beautiful, but that it lives in itself. So much art now doesn’t believe in itself, and that’s a defining element of beauty.
CWR: In your own experience, did beauty (whether specifically through music or not) play a role in your conversion, and your reversion to the Catholic faith?
Kurek: When I was a kid in the early 1960s, I had an Austrian choir director who had been conscripted by the Nazis, escaped, and was later trained as a really great classical organist. He formed a boys’ choir, like you’d have in Austria. It was an extraordinary experience, because we were singing great classical literature. I was singing alto, and having to learn the harmony part much of the time. I was surrounded by that beauty. And at home, my parents played classical music. My father was a Polish working-class man, but even then those European immigrants still had classical music in their veins. My dad would pick up his violin and play it. He loved the opera singer Maria Callas. So I grew up hearing opera records, orchestra music.
I’m teaching a homeschool music appreciation class this fall, and the first piece I’m giving them (which was the first piece I got as a child) is the Peer Gynt Suite by Grieg. It’s very tuneful, and user-friendly. I remember as a child, lying on the floor of the living room, listening to it. I would ask my mother to play it, and I would just lie on the floor and listen to it. By high school I was listening to Beethoven piano concertos—I was a classical music fan from the cradle. We also watched Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts—that was on prime-time network TV!
People had some literacy of classical music. It’s shocking: I teach college music majors and they don’t even know some of the fundamental classical music.
CWR: In many ways today, there is a lack of a basic cultural knowledge. Is that a barrier to evangelization, or can the beauty of music overcome that?
Kurek: What we’re talking about, fundamentally, is that you can’t count on cultural literacy anymore in the arts among the public. Even among people with college degrees, you can’t count on the things you used to be able to use as a baseline of reference. You’d be amazed how many people I encounter who don’t even know Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. People know nothing of classical music. You can’t assume they know anything. And not just classical music: I had one class with 20 music majors, and not one person in that class had heard the name Frank Sinatra.
It’s the same with evangelization. People used to know some basics of the Christian faith, and you could reliably assume that. I think we have to go again to the place where the early Church was, where the early saints were. A lot of them were dealing with paganism, and had to really present the faith from ground zero, from step one. So maybe the arts can play a great role in that, more than ever before.
CWR: Are we fundamentally attracted to beauty?
Kurek: I do believe there’s an innate capacity to recognize beauty. It’s hardwired into the human person. In Romans 1 it says there’s no excuse to not believe in God because it’s evident from creation. Beauty is a sort of evidence for God’s existence that people can really see.
When we talk about evangelization through beauty, we have to realize that there are people who have never been exposed to real beauty. That’s quite a challenge, but also: what else are you going to do?