Thomas Jefferson: Architect, Musician

Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia establishes hierarchy on The Lawn.
Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia establishes hierarchy on The Lawn.

 

Hierarchy is a powerful concept in architecture. Some buildings, such as Frank Gehry’s iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, or the Sydney Opera House, rising out of the harbor with its bright “sails,” grab our attention and dominate the landscape. The majestic, muscular Art Deco City Hall in Buffalo, New York is another, if less obvious, example. It nobly anchors the city’s main public square, telling us, “this place is important.” The building has a powerful presence when seen from a distance down one of the city’s long, main boulevards. It establishes a sense of procession.

But not every building should scream at us. The quiet, surrounding background buildings are just as important to architectural hierarchy. These are the buildings that make up the nuts and bolts of a city and make the occasional icons especially powerful. Consider the satisfying feeling we get from the handsome, but homogeneous, blocks that make up the majority of central Paris.

Hierarchy is apparent in Thomas Jefferson’s masterful, classical design for the University of Virginia. The Rotunda, influenced by the Pantheon in Rome and Palladian architecture, sits at the head of The Lawn, flanked by the background buildings of the “Academical Village.” The Rotunda, which Jefferson designed to represent the “authority of nature and power of reason,” houses the library. Interestingly, as architect Stanley Tigerman mentions in this 2011 Yale lecture, Jefferson’s original plan did not include the Rotunda. It boldly obliterated hierarchy, leaving The Lawn open-ended, similar to twentieth century architect Louis Kahn’s 1965 design for the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. It was only after Jefferson visited Europe that he retreated from the ultimate democratic symbolism of his initial design. Look at the image below and consider The Lawn without the hierarchy of its famous Rotunda.

Architectural critic Paul Goldberger describes Jefferson’s design, in its completed form, this way:

Ultimately the University of Virginia is an essay in balance-balance between the built world and the natural one, between the individual and the community, between past and present, between order and freedom. There is order to the buildings, freedom to the lawn itself-but as the buildings order and define and enclose the great open space, so does the space make the buildings sensual and rich. Neither the buildings nor the lawn would have any meaning without the other, and the dialogue they enter into is a sublime composition. The lawn is terraced, so that it steps down gradually as it moves away from the Rotunda, adding a whole other rhythm to the composition. The lawn is a room, and the sky its ceiling; I know of few other outdoor places anywhere where the sense of architectural space can be so intensely felt.

Jefferson's "Academical Village" at the University of Virginia.
Jefferson’s “Academical Village” flanks The Lawn at the University of Virginia.

Jefferson, the Violinist

In addition to being a visionary architect, naturalist, statesman, and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was a violinist. During his lifetime he owned three violins, one possibly made by famous Cremona master, Nicolò Amati. His library included the technical treatise, The Art of Playing on the Violin by Francesco Geminiani (1680-1762) as well as sonatas and concertos by Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, Pugnani, Boccherini, and others.

Andrew Manze’s performance of Corelli’s 12 Violin Sonatas, Op.5 provides a sense of the music Jefferson might have played:

An Inside Look at Violin Making in Cremona

IT_13_MAIN_Cremona_S.Abbondio_Chiostro_particolare

Early last month, CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker’s excellent 60 Minutes piece, The City of Music, profiled the long history of violin making in Cremona. The small Italian city has produced some of the world’s finest violins, including instruments by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and luthier families such as Amati (active between 1537 and 1740), Guarneri, and Bergonzi.

Itzhak Perlman talks about the characteristics of his Strad and plays briefly. He describes his mental image of the sound and its sense of “sparkle.” Violinists Cho Liang Lin, Salvatore Accardo, and Anastasiya Petryshak also appear.

With one hundred and fifty shops, Cremona is still an epicenter of fine violin making. Whitaker offers an inside look at violin making and restoration, including the selection of wood which is based on resonance.

Watch the 60 Minutes report and then listen to Perlman’s Strad in action as he plays Fritz Kreisler’s Preludium and Allegro.

The Violin: A Cross Between Art and Technology

violinist Frank Almond
violinist Frank Almond

Last week the music world was shocked by news of a well coordinated theft of the priceless 1715 “Lipinski” Stradivarius. The violin was on loan to Frank Almond, concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Following a concert, the thieves used a stun gun to incapacitate Almond, who was not seriously injured. A $100,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the safe return of the instrument. You can read a statement from the violin’s owner at Almond’s website.

Last May I profiled A Violin’s Life, Frank Almond’s excellent recording featuring the “Lipinski” Strad. A Violin’s Life was an honorable project because it allowed the public to celebrate the sound and distinguished history of this extraordinary instrument. On some level, a work of art of this caliber belongs to all of us.

As musicians we develop deep emotional bonds with our instruments. We spend many hours together. We put in our energy and the violin gives back. The greatest violins offer up a seemingly endless array of tonal colors. Over time, the violinist has the joy of discovering what the instrument can do and how to draw the best sounds out.

As this open letter to the thieves states, it will be impossible for the violin to be sold for many years. This means, if not returned, it will probably sit in a vault unplayed. Besides its value as an investment, what good is an unplayed violin? We can only hope for a happy ending to this story.

Update: The “Lipinski” Strad Has Been Recovered

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Art Meets Technology[/typography]

A great violin is both a technological tool and a work of art. The PBS documentary, Violin Masters: Two Gentleman of Cremona showcases history’s two most respected violin makers, Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698-1744). The film highlights some of the aspects which make these violins so extraordinary as well as the differences between them (Strads are generally sweet while the Guarneri is known for a deep, rich chocolaty sound). Joshua Bell talks about his Strad in this clip.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Modern Violin Making[/typography]

Modern violin makers, known as luthiers, still copy the Strad and Guarneri models. No one has improved on this combination of dimensions, wood, varnish and craftsmanship. The “secret” regarding what makes these instruments so great also remains a mystery. This short film features a behind the scenes look at the work of Oregon luthier David Gusset:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Red Violin[/typography]

The 1998 film The Red Violin offered a romantic view of the long life of a great violin. The movie’s score was written by American composer John Corigliano. Here is violinist Philippe Quint playing music from the film:

[quote]Every time I open my violin case and find this treasure inside, my heart jumps just a little bit. This 300-year-old artifact is the perfect unity of art and science, one of the most remarkable constructions made by a human being.[/quote]

-Joshua Bell (See this Strad Magazine interview).