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John Palcewski's Journal

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Musical Irony

Jack Joyce, my uncle, was no stranger to sorrow. But he never spoke of it. My mother, Elizabeth, told me her kid brother always kept everything to himself. He thought if he ever revealed what went through his head they’d put him away somewhere. He liked being called “Black Irish,” because of all the wild stories they told about it. Like for instance that his dark hair and deep brown eyes came from sailors of the Spanish Armada shipwrecked in Ireland a long time ago. Or from ancient Spanish Moors who traded with the folks on Ireland’s west coast.

Anyway, Jack often fell into dark moods that he believed were unique, not experienced by anyone else. That is, until the evening Elizabeth took him to a chamber recital at Symphony Hall. She showed me the program that she’d saved. One of the pieces was a Beethoven quartet, the Opus 59, No. 3. At the single pizzacato opening note of the Andantino, Jack was startled. He sat up, transfixed. The music was an alien language—but one he immediately understood.

He said afterward that it was the most awful expression of grief he’d ever heard. And in the middle of it—repeated twice—was a supposedly lyrical theme that was an example of musical irony he’d never before encountered. It was like a man being carted to the gallows for his hanging, and he sees in the crowd a lovely blue-eyed girl in a wide-brimmed hat. When you are about to die, Jack said, that kind of vision is nothing less than a spear thrust into your heart.

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It's wonderful that, in these modern days, we live in a society that indulges and capitalizes off of people's insanity far more frequently than in the past.

However, that doesn't mean that a very similar insanity that we experience today didn't inspire the most cherished classical artistic expressions, they were however a lot less explicit.

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