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Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.


Writing for Faith & Culture

We welcome the submission of articles of between 600 and 1,500 words on topics related to Catholic faith and culture. Articles should be emailed as Word attachments to Joseph Pearce.

Symphony No. 2: Tales from the Realm of Faerie

Symphony No. 2: Tales from the Realm of Faerie

Here are remarks on hidden Christian symbolism in my second symphony:

I have lately had an idea that perhaps a classical composer could create a musical counterpart to the allegories of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis in the form of a purely musical “fairy tale in sound” containing hidden Christian symbolism. Clearly, this needs some explanation. First, I am not talking about imbedding some secret spiritual code within a musical work to be discovered, as a kind of superficial game. For example, I am not talking about turning a biblical name into a musical theme or hiding a backwards hymn tune in the clarinet. For the above authors, the Christian content was not a game or code but the foundation and genesis of the work’s central conception. It generates the shape and architecture of the story and is its reason for existing. To illustrate how this might work in music, I am going to discuss a single musical example, the introduction (the first 37 measures, about the first minute and a half) of the first movement of my second symphony.

This passage of music, along with the rest of the symphony, sounds to most ears like some kind of a “fairy-tale in sound.” That is to say, with its Romantic orchestration and shimmering opening that builds up to a swashbuckling climax, one might suppose that it had been written for a ballet like Sleeping Beauty or Romeo and Juliet. As far as the public knows, though, I have avoided pegging this music to any particular story. I have said in my program note only that it “calls to my mind the flavors of many fairy-tale worlds I have loved.” That way, the listener remains free to imagine all sorts of things. However, for me there actually was a hidden Christian symbolism that literally inspired this excerpt, which I am about to reveal. I hasten to add that I do not plan to reveal any further Christian symbolism behind the rest of the symphony, even to Christians, for reasons I will explain below.

However, to make my point I will reveal that this musical introduction was actually conceived and inspired in response to one of the most spectacular events in the Bible, the Ascension of Christ into heaven, described in Acts, chapter one. The Ascension, though awe-inspiring, may have been a rather silent and hushed moment from the perspective of the apostles who were on earth, watching it. Yet I cannot help but imagine the sound that the hosts of angels and saints in heaven might have been hearing, inaudible to earthly ears, which might have been quite ravishing. I picture throngs of old-testament saints in something like a heavenly stadium, watching the Ascension projected like live TV coverage on the clouds, which is of course a very contemporary kind of image, but somehow I imagine that they were enabled to see it and found it thrilling. This is purely a heavenly speculation, of course.

Perhaps, in their perception, moments before the actual Ascension, the air was supercharged by electrifying particles, like sparkling, magic dust, and then with a rising horn line, as our Lord was taken up, they might have sent up great cheers, and it might have been heralded by glorious chords and heroic fanfares from all the great trumpet sections of angels in raucous celebration, followed by a trailing off, like sparks floating down after fireworks that just exploded. And yet, no mere welcome-back-to-heaven party, the tone of this music might also have been utterly serious and majestic, reflecting an awesome power and wonder and a certain kind of godly fear on the part of all who witnessed it. Now you can hear how very specifically the music of this introduction fits this description.

To the public listeners of the music, though, I will say nothing of this in the program note and only mention it here, and about this one short excerpt. It is enough for the public that they perceive something generally like an engaging and beautiful, epic fairy-tale style. They might even suggest to their friends all sorts of stories or films with which they imagine it might go well. However, I am only concerned that they perceive a sense of some kind of musical fairy tale going on. Christ illustrated truths in archetypal parables, that is, in fictional stories of typical situations, possibly because such narratives have a clearly transcendent quality derived precisely from being fictional. The literary fairy tale can also be seen as a powerful, more transcendent kind of narrative or parable that, though fictional, speaks of our ultimate purpose, our fantastic journey toward redemption and heaven. While a factual non-fictional story may also be applied to such symbolism, I believe (along with Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald, and others) that the more abstract fairy-tale genre in literature, like Christ’s parables, may actually speak more deeply, naturally, and universally than a factual story can. By extension, as a composer, I believe that a musical fairy tale can also speak with this same, and at times perhaps even a more powerful abstraction than a literary fairy tale, eliciting the direct emotion that music can so naturally convey.

It should follow, therefore, that it is not important for me to describe the rest of this symphony, blow by blow, in terms of specific Christian events like the Ascension of Christ, even if they were what generated the work. In fact, it is better that I leave that as a mystery, even if you think you might at some point be hearing the siege of Jericho or the dance of Salome. What is important is simply to know that this was my working method, and that my work was, at its heart, the product of a Christian imagination. My desire is not for the listener to perceive a certain event, but to discern the general spiritual values of goodness, truth, and beauty, also an epic, compassionate, and heroic journey of some kind, in whatever way each listener may be able to imagine them. This is the mystery and the wonder of the sanctified human imagination, be it in fairy tales or traditional classical music. Unlike, say, Narnia, with its specific allegory of Christ’s redemptive work, purely instrumental music can be an allegorical narrative more generally – of purposefulness moving through time toward a goal, of love, sadness, struggle, hope, and ultimate victory.

The first movement of Michael Kurek’s Second Symphony can be heard here.

American composer Michael Kurek’s music, hailed for its lush neo-romanticism, has garnered performances in fifteen countries on five continents. His many awards for music include the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (the Academy’s top lifetime achievement award in composition), and he has served on the Classical Nominations Committee for the Grammy Awards. His 2017 album, The Sea Knows, was No. 1 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Chart. He holds the doctorate in composition from the University of Michigan and serves on the faculty of Vanderbilt University. For more information, go to www.michaelkurek.com.

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