These are exciting days, at least for those who are aware of the vibrant Christian revival in the arts which seems to be growing with each passing year. The quantity and quality of new Christian literature is a case in point, and there are parallel revivals in the visual arts and in architecture, especially ecclesial architecture. As for music, it is gratifying to see tradition-oriented composers emerging phoenix-like from the ashes of avant-garde dissonance. One such composer is Michael Kurek whose most recent CD, The Sea Knows, reviewed last year in this very journal, went to the top of the Billboard classical music charts. Since then he has been working on his Second Symphony, the first movement of which is now finished. “What pleases me most about this movement from a spiritual perspective,” he says, “is that it has a heroic and victorious feel, which reflects the Christian fairy-tale genre and spiritual battle, or the Church Militant generally.”
The Second Symphony’s subtitle, “Tales from the Realm of Faerie,” evokes the rich fairytale tradition at the heart of Western culture, especially as it has impacted Dr. Kurek’s own imaginative and inspirational formation: “It calls forth in my own imagination a kind of rich musical tapestry intertwining all the colors and scenes of many fairy-tale worlds I have loved.”
Although the symphony will conform to a definite, classical form in the thematic and key structure of each movement, the orchestration was conceived more abstractly in what Dr. Kurek describes as “a fantasia of fairy tale impressions in sound, spinning out like golden threads from a magical, musical spinning wheel.” He says that he had no particular fairy story in mind but hoped that its effect on the listener might evoke and reflect the power that such tales convey. “It is my hope that childlike ears might simply lose themselves in this world, as a child loses himself when hearing a fairy tale being read aloud.” He envisages the symphony being composed of “swashbuckling fanfares, love themes, pointillist fairy-dust, the surprising appearance of an evil sorcerer, music for a grand ball at a castle, or anything else one might wish to imagine from one’s own storehouse of fairy-tale dreams.” Beyond these specific images, he has tried to capture “a certain spirit of unspoiled beauty, innocence, and heroic goodness.”
Working within the demanding parameters of the traditional symphony genre, Dr. Kurek is keen to distance himself from the “cinematic” comparisons which might be suggested by the pictorial and narrative elements of his music. His true role models, he says, are those early twentieth-century tonal symphonists of the concert hall, such as Jean Sibelius and Ralph Vaughan-Williams. As for his own musical “voice” or persona, he has been described by one of his peers as “a postmodern Pre-Raphaelite,” a paradoxical juxtaposition of disparate artistic movements which he is willing to accept in a qualified way. “I think I can accept that,” he says, “if by postmodern he simply means at face value ‘after Modernism’, and if by Pre-Raphaelite he simply means opposed to the academic teaching of my day.” Beyond these inspirational elements and labels, he is simply excited at the new and more challenging direction in which his Second Symphony is taking him.
“I’m struggling to express concisely what a breakthrough in Catholic terms I believe this work is for me,” he confessed. “The Catholic allegorical fairy tale tradition gave me the permission or courage somehow to access in music the heroism and goodness of that tradition and also of the great, now all but lost, early twentieth century symphonic tradition. I pulled out all the stops with the large symphony orchestra. This opens a new door for my work, and gives me a bigger, nobler, and bolder vision for what my music should say hereafter.”
In a further confession, he also revealed that the first minute and a half of the first movement was written in the few days following Ascension Sunday and portrays in a deeply personal way a vision of the Ascension of Christ.
With three more movements to be composed, the finished symphony will be around forty minutes in length when finished, incorporating “a grand ball dance movement, a rather English pastoral, peaceful movement, and a longer finale movement with added gravitas.”
Kurek’s Second Symphony was commissioned personally by the Romanian conductor and world-renowned cellist, Ovidiu Marinescu, who serves regularly as a guest conductor with several mostly Eastern European orchestras. The plan is to perform and record the symphony during the fall of 2019, possibly spring 2020, with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra in Moscow.
Those seeking a sneak preview of the first movement of Michael Kurek’s Second Symphony can listen to it here. He has made it available on his website at the request of the present reviewer but he asks that listeners bear in mind that it is only a virtual orchestra mock-up, using computer-sampled sounds of the instruments. “The real orchestra is going to sound far better,” he reminds us, “so consider this an imperfect, behind-the-scenes sneak preview of a work in progress.” The images that accompany the music were added by the composer just for fun, and temporarily. Be sure to take a second listen without watching the images and use the imagination of your own mind’s eye, as you would do in the concert hall.
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