Tension in the Service of the Sad: Pete Townshend Meets Henry Purcell


Rock legend Pete Townshend of The Who has long cited Henry Purcell as a major, if unlikely, musical influence and in fact he incorprated parts of Purcell’s work into his rock opera, Quadrophenia, and in the opening of “Pinball Wizard,” among other pieces.

It’s interesting how this influence began. In a conversation he had with Matt Everitt of the BBC’s “6 Music” program, he said he was living with his manager, Kit Lambert, whose father was the musical director of the Royal Ballet at Covent Gardens, Constant Lambert. Purcell-2 Early in the band’s career, around the time of “My Generation,” Kit shared with Townshend a recording of Purcell’s suite, “The Gordian Knot Untied,” which uses a series of suspended chords. The sophistication and emotive quality of the chord suspensions, particularly in the Chaconne, riveted Townshend and he started incorporating the idea of suspension into his work. “Suddenly I was in a world of suspensions,” he says.

Purcell translates rather nicely into pop music, Townshend says, because, like pop, it’s simple. “Purcell wrote in the very early era of orchestral and choral music,” he told Everitt, “and his music was simple, very basic. It had to be knocked off quickly. It wasn’t as complex as Bach went on to produce later.”

The Chaconne is the sixth of eight parts of “The Gordian Knot Untied” and it is, as Townshend described it, moving and “profoundly sad,” which would certainly characterize much of The Who’s music, if you think of pieces like “The Song is Over” and “Behind Blue Eyes.” wizard

Townshend also used suspensions in the opening chord sequence of “Pinball Wizard.”

“That chord sequence [at the beginning of ‘Pinball Wizard’] runs for about 15 minutes [on the demo],” Townshend told Steve Rosen of Sounds International in 1980. “It’s just an exploration of how many chords I could make with a running B. The B was in every chord. It went through about 30 or 40 chords very slowly and then into the song. “I’m a Boy” did that as well, in the solo.

“I got very Baroque,” he went on. “I started to be interested in the fact that [Baroque composers] used melodic transitions very rarely and there would always be suspensions and tension and it would be another level of tension and it would drop. This was mainly Purcell.”

Tension in the service of the simple and the sad. That sounds a lot like The Who.—Nabob, On Baroque

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