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:

Beauty in Simplicity: A Schubert Sanctus

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Sometimes the most profound musical statements flow out of simplicity. Rooted in song, the music of Franz Schubert often seems to say a lot with a few, seemingly effortless notes. The Sanctus from Schubert’s Deutsche Messe, D. 872 (German Mass) is a good example. 

In the traditional Latin liturgical text, Sanctus sounds like a stirring proclamation, “Holy, Holy, Holy, God of power and might.” These lines have inspired composers from Mozart and Verdi to John Rutter to write soaring, contrapuntal music. By contrast, Schubert’s Sanctus is a simple, introspective chorale. 

Written in 1827, near the end of Schubert’s short life, the German Mass is set to poems by Johann Philipp Neumann rather than the traditional Latin text. Neumann commissioned Schubert to write simple, homophonic music that would be easy for an entire congregation to sing. Although intended for a Catholic service, the work was banned because it was an “unauthorized” German translation of the Mass. You can listen to the entire German Mass here.

Listen carefully to the inner voices. Schubert sets up our expectation and then throws in some thrilling harmonic surprises:

Christmas at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

King's CollegeHere is Jan Sandström’s atmospheric setting of Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming, performed live by the choir of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, England on Christmas Eve, 2009. Sandström is a contemporary Swedish composer and for me there is something about this music which captures the bleak, desolate Scandinavian landscape in December. It also has a unique flow. When the sun sets at 3:00 in the afternoon for part of the year, do you develop a different perception of time?

We’re used to hearing Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming in relatively simple four part harmony as it’s sung here by Chanticleer. Listen to the more familiar chorale version first and then contrast it with Sandström’s 1990 setting: