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- 2 05 2021 - 15:12 - katatonik

On dissonance

“I wanted a different music. For simple escape and vandalising joy, there was the rock music my brother was sharing with me. For contemplation and difficult beauty, there was the stuff I knew and cherished as a cathedral chorister, a largely English polyphonic tradition from the 16th and 17th centuries, alongside which later Viennese classicism appeared a bland retreat. When you hear William Byrd and Thomas Tallis for the first time, you don’t know where things are going; there are weird harmonies and tonal shifts, curious crooked cadences that loom suddenly from unlit verges. And such dissonances! In the cathedral, we loved to squeeze out those acute semitone clashes, which we called ‘scrunches’. In Byrd, in Tallis and often in Bach, of course, dissonance is felt as a shudder that goes vertically through the body of the music, like someone pressing down on a wound. When you’ve sung Purcell’s unfinished fragment from the early 1680s, ‘Hear my Prayer, O Lord’, a two-and-a-half minute howl in C minor, relentlessly unfurling its dissonance and grinding chromaticism, you’ve heard everything that’s important in music, and can skip straight to the 20th century. Or so it seemed to me. My sister was studying the Renaissance composer Gesualdo, a kind of lunatic of chromaticism. By contrast, the Viennese symphonic tradition of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven came well wadded with unimportant social and syntactical ‘filler’ – like the difference between a Donne poem and some big realist novel of the 19th century. In classical Austria, tonality was a wander through familiar connecting rooms; dissonance, when it appeared at all, existed not to open wounds but to close them.”

James Wood, A Great Deaf Bear, London Review of Books 43/1, 7 January 2001, p. 3.

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