Trinity Church, Boston: Architecture and Sound

Henry Hobson Richardson's Trinity Church in Boston
Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston

 

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the birth of noted nineteenth century American architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886). Richardson’s memorable and influential designs include the turreted Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, Albany’s City Hall and New York State Capital, Buffalo’s New York State Asylum, and Chicago’s mighty Marshall Field Wholesale Store (now demolished), as well as a host of libraries and houses in smaller towns.

Richardson’s buildings, load-bearing and often featuring extensive stone and masonry, convey a sense of rugged weight and accentuate a fascinating play of solids and voids. The Beaux-Arts-trained  architect developed a medieval revival style, imitated by later architects through the early years of the twentieth century, which became known as “Richardsonian Romanesque.”

Henry Hobson Richardson’s most famous work is undoubtedly Trinity Church in Boston’s Back Bay, built between 1872 and 1877 and designated one of the “Ten Most Significant Buildings in the United States” by the American Institute of Architects. The church anchors Copley Square, its enormous central tower creating a dramatic visual approach. In the absence of an “American” style, nineteenth and early twentieth century architects looked to historical examples in Europe. (In the case of Trinity Church, a fresh new form emerges, rather than a simple copy). Richardson wrote,

…the style of the Church may be characterized as a free rendering of the French Romanesque, inclining particularly to the school that flourished in the eleventh century in Central France.

Despite its size, Henry Cobb and I.M Pei’s neighboring 790-foot-tall John Hancock Tower, completed in 1976, defers to Trinity Church. Its sliver-thin side meets the square with an axis which keeps the church the center of attention. Mirrored glass almost makes it seem to disappear as it reflects its surroundings and becomes a liquid contrast to Trinity Church’s solidity.

As we celebrate Henry Hobson Richardson’s legacy, let’s step inside and hear the extraordinary Trinity Church choir. Here is a playlist featuring their 1999 Naxos recording, Radiant Light – Songs for the Millennium. Opening with Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, the CD includes meditative music by Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, Tchaikovsky, Randall Thompson, and John Rutter:

From Bawdy to Sacred: A Lassus Kyrie

Orlande de
Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594)

“Why should the devil have all the good music?” It’s a quote that has been incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther, among others. But Franco-Flemish composer Orlande de Lassus, Palestrina, and other composers in the late Renaissance actually put this idea into practice in the form of the Parody Mass. The Parody Mass borrowed from pre-existing music, often motets and secular chanson. Composers at the time commonly stole and adapted melodies the way jazz musicians do today.

In Missa Entre vous filles (1581), Lassus based his Kyrie on a raunchy, lustful, and sexually explicit French chanson by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (c. 1510-1556?) called Entre vous filles de quinze ans (listen to the song here). Listening to Lassus’ liturgical adaptation, you would never guess the melody’s origin. Dusted off and dressed in church clothes, it becomes completely new music. Lassus was able to develop this existing seed into a profound musical statement.

Notice the imitative counterpoint between voices, present from the beginning, and the rich, sensuous harmony. This gradually unfolding music is more about the moment than a far off goal. It’s interesting to consider the similarities between Lassus’ music, written over 400 years ago, and the music of contemporary composers like Ēriks Ešenvalds and Arvo Pärt.

  • Find this recording of Orlande de Lassus’ Missa Entre vous filles on iTunes, Amazon
  • Find music by Jacobus Clemens non Papa on iTunes, Amazon

Your 2014 Christmas Playlist

xmas-tree-generic

With Christmas just a few days away, here is a short collection of music guaranteed to get you in the holiday spirit. Take a break from the rush of last minute shopping, light the tree, pour some eggnog and explore the playlist:

Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes

Let’s start off with music from the late 12th century. Pérotin was part of a group of composers at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral who were influential in early polyphony (more than one voice occurring at one time). Viderunt omnes is built on Gregorian chant, which was probably used in Paris for the Christmas Day liturgy. Here is a translation of the text:

All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Rejoice in the Lord, all lands.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
in the sight of the heathen
he has revealed his righteousness.

The long, sustained pitches of the original chant, known as a Cantus firmus, form the foundation for the musical lines above. Consider the way the music is flowing. Does it feel linear or circular? Listen to the way the voices fit together, sometimes in canon, and the way the music alternates between pure open fifths and octaves and occasional dense, crunching dissonances.

The music of Pérotin influenced modern minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt. In Reich’s Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboardsrepeating musical patterns gradually develop over long, sustained pitches.

Here is the Hilliard Ensemble:

Handel’s Messiah

The Christmas season isn’t complete without a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Here is a 1987 performance by Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with soprano Sylvia McNair, mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, tenor Jon Humphrey, and Baritone William Stone:

Greensleeves

Christmas texts have been set to the folk song melody, Greensleeves since at least 1686. Here is Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves:

Now listen to the way another English composer, Gustav Holst combines the Greensleeves melody with dance music in the final movement of his Second Suite in F for Military Band. In 1912 Holst adapted the same music for strings in the St. Paul Suite. 

Christmas with the Pittsburgh Symphony Brass

The Pittsburgh Symphony Brass has released at least three Christmas recordings since the ensemble was formed in 1994. The group has the sound of a brass choir rather than a quintet, with both bass trombone and tuba. Listen to the rich, powerful harmonic overtones in their playing.

Here is Ding Dong Merrily on High and I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day:

Three Nativity Carols by Stephen Paulus

This excerpt comes from a CD called Wonder Tidings: Christmas music of Stephen Paulus.

Here is The Holly and the Ivy, This Endris Night, and Wonder Tidings:

Arvo Pärt: Spirit in Sound and Space

Architect Steven Holl's Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle.
Architect Steven Holl’s Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle.

In June the Metropolitan Museum of Art and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary hosted a thought-provoking discussionSpirit in Sound and Space- A Conversation Inspired by Arvo Pärt, in conjunction with this summer’s Arvo Pärt Project. The discussion brought together architect Steven Holl, neuroscientist Robert Zatorre, and musician and theology professor Peter Bouteneff.

For Steven Holl, one of the most visionary contemporary architects, ideas often emerge through the process of painting watercolors. Buildings like the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle and the Knut Hamsun Centertwo hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in Hamarøy, Norway, register the flow of time with constant, subtly changing plays of light and shadow. Holl notes that Arvo Pärt “sees sound as space.” 

“Music surrounds you. It’s an immersive experience” says Holl, whose work is influenced by music. “Architecture, space surrounds you.”

Zatorre points out that the parietal lobe of the brain handles our perception of music as well as space. His insights, based on a strictly mechanistic view of the workings of the brain, are interesting, but in the end they leave many questions unanswered. The “spirit” part of the conversation remains elusive. What is the source of a creative idea? How do great buildings suddenly emerge out of Steven Holl’s brushstrokes? Albert Einstein hinted at these questions when he said,

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

A new voice emerges…

The story of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) demonstrates the mysteries of the creative process. At the end of the 1960s, Pärt suddenly abandoned the dissonant, twelve tone music of the mid-century musical establishment. For eight years he was unable to compose beyond musical fragments jotted in a notebook. Then, in 1976 a new and radically different voice suddenly emerged with Für Alina, a three minute piece for piano:

All music flows through time. Listening to the mystical minimalism of Arvo Pärt, there’s an equally powerful sense of time flowing through music. It’s easy to become one with the moment in Pärt’s music. It allows us to “enter inside the sound.” You might be reminded of the meditative, circular flow of Gregorian Chant or the music of Lassus or Palestrina

Pärt’s style of writing, which suggests the overtones of bells, is known as Tintinnabulation. He describes it here:

Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. . . . The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.

Silentium

Silentium is the second movement of Pärt’s Tabula Rasa (1977):

Here is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s performance of Canon of Repentance, which took place June 2 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Spiegel im Spiegel

new-york-city-ballet-hed-2013You may have seen New Beginnings, the short film released by New York City Ballet on September 12. It features a moving performance on the 57th floor terrace of 4 World Trade Center at dawn and is intended to be “a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, and a tribute to the future of the city that New York City Ballet calls home.”

The music is Spiegel im Spiegel (mirror in the mirror), written in 1978 by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b.1935). Here is a recording of the piece by violinist Nicola Benedetti and pianist Alexei Grynyuk. As you listen, consider how the music is flowing and what effect it has on your sense of time. Is there a process unfolding throughout the piece? Why do you think it’s called Spiegel im Spiegel, or “mirror in the mirror”?

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If you hold a mirror in front of another mirror the reflections become infinite. You probably noticed a similar process happening musically. The violin keeps returning to the pitch, “A.” The piece develops slowly as pitches are added, one at a time in perfect inversions below and above this “A”. Consider how this incremental development influences your sense of expectation.

Spiegel im Spiegel evolves outward, filling up musical “space” and giving us the sense of time flowing through music. This might remind you of the additive process we heard in Steve Reich’s Different Trains in the last “Listeners’ Club” post. In the late 1970’s a handful of American composers such as Reich and Philip Glass were experimenting with minimalism-circular, repetitive music which flowed in a fundamentally different way. Around the same time Arvo Pärt, trapped behind the Iron Curtain and cut off from most outside musical influences, discarded atonality and began writing similar music. Pärt’s meditative minimalism is rooted in mysticism and influenced by early music, especially Gregorian chant.

This episode of the BBC series, Soul Music explores Spiegel im Spiegel and its effect on listeners. Listen a few more times and share your thoughts on the music in the thread below.

[quote]I could compare my music to white light which contains all colors. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener. -Arvo Pärt. [/quote]

"Spheres" by Daniel Hope

SpheresMusica universalis, or the “music of the spheres” is the ancient philosophical concept that the movements of the sun, moon and planets generate celestial vibrations. Pythagoras accidentally discovered that a musical pitch sounds in direct proportion to the length of the string which produces it. He was interested in the concept of universal harmony rooted in mathematical ratios-a unifying cosmic “music.”

Violinist Daniel Hope’s new CD, Spheres finds inspiration in these big ideas. Spheres puts music of J.S Bach and Johann Paul von Westhoff side by side with works by modern composers including Philip Glass, Lera Aurbach, Michael Nyman and Arvo Pärt. The result is a collection of short pieces which seem to transcend style and time period:

[quote style=”boxed”]In this album my idea was to bring together music and time, including works by composers from different centuries who might perhaps not always be found in the same “galaxy” but yet are united by the age-old question: is there anything out there? -Daniel Hope[/quote]

The CD opens with Imitazione delle campane by Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656-1705), music which may have inspired Bach to write the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. This music could easily be mistaken for the modern minimalism of Arvo Pärt. Hope has some interesting things to say about this piece and the historical significance of Westhoff as a composer and violinist.

Another excerpt from the CD is Musica Universalis by Alex Baranowski, a piece that was commissioned for the album by Daniel Hope:

Spheres also includes I Giorni (2001) by film composer Ludovico Einaudi:

Hope offers a track by track listener’s guide to the CD. For more information on Spheres watch this interview and this clip with composer Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei Prokofiev). If you’re interested in hearing etherial and expressive new violin music as well as rediscovering a forgotten gem like the Westhoff, you’ll enjoy this recording.

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