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The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance

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. 

Doesn’t it seem true that art needs conflict? Can we understand beauty without reference to ugliness? Goodness without reference to evil? 

But somehow, Palestrina captivates with his pure, sweet harmonies alone. What does this do for your understanding of redemption, of heaven, in which conflict dissolves but the “music” becomes ever-more enthralling? 

These are the kinds of questions for which the musical language gives us words, the kind of aural understanding it communicates. 

But, these questions aside, Palestrina’s Kyrie offers us something more valuable still. No less than he, we hear of tensions and dissensions, wars and rumors of wars. We still need this summons to the sacred, this echo of unearthly beauty, calling forth earth’s unending prayer: Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.