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Polyphonic Composition,

All three textures are beautiful, each helping us to “understand with our ears” a different conception of what unity could mean. For what could the various musical textures (monophonic, homophonic, polyphonic) provide good analogies? Which textures match life in the church? The family? The community?

But consider the unique beauty that polyphony plays in this Kyrie. What does the sound of six distinct, individual voices—singing their own songs out of their own lives, sorrows, hopes—singing in slow, drawn-out lines that express the yearning built into this prayer—yet singing the same words and sublimely interweaving their melodies—what does that do for your understanding of what happens and what God hears when His church prays?

We still need this summons to the sacred, this echo of unearthly beauty, calling forth earth’s unending prayer: Lord, have mercy.
Now consider just one more facet of this musical language: the use of harmony. Do you notice that there are no harsh or jarring sounds throughout the Kyrie? Palestrina perfected Renaissance counterpoint and became the model of its use for later composers, all the way to the present day. Put simply, counterpoint is a structured way of writing each line of music so that the different voices never clash with each other, but instead, they harmonize on every strong beat of the music. Only on non-emphasized beats may they occasionally feature dissonance, or clashing; and it must be resolved into harmony again on the next strong beat. Palestrina, however, uses almost no dissonance at all—the most famous hallmark of his style.

Dissonance is to music what conflict is to literary plot. Until you hear it, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine how music can hold the listener’s interest without involving strong dissonance to startle, grip, and drive towards resolution, just as a plot needs conflict to carry it forward. Indeed, later composers would eschew the rules of counterpoint, preferring to make dissonance a driving force of their music.