Classical Architecture Inspires a Return to Beauty in Classical Music

Goethe famously said that “Architecture is music frozen in time.” Expressing that literally, Le Corbusier and composer Iannis Xenakis co-designed the Philips Pavilion for Expo ’58 in Brussels.  In particular, the hyperboloid building, shaped like a stomach, was inspired by Xenakis’ scratchy composition Metastasis (listen). “Metastasis” means “the spread of a disease from one organ or part to another non-adjacent organ or part.” (Is this what the Dutch electronics company had in mind?) As visitors entered and exited the pavilion, they heard a recording of Xenakis’ Concret PH, which is nothing but the noise of burning charcoal (listen). Xenakis described the projected sound as “like needles darting from everywhere.” Cutting edge, indeed. In the interior, visitors heard Edgard Varèse’s disjointed piece Poème électronique, which was specially written agglomerated for the pavilion (listen). I commend the composers for accurately capturing Le Corbusier’s architecture in sound.

Le Corbusier Xenakis Philips Pavilion Classical Architecture Inspires a Return to Beauty in Classical Music
Philips Pavilion at Expo ’58 – Architects Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis

Writing for The New York Times,  Robert Beaser, a professor and chairperson of the composition department at Juilliard, explains how classical architecture in Rome inspired him to reject the barrenness of Modernism in music.

The year was 1977, and this 23-year-old composer arrived wet behind the ears to take up residence at the American Academy in Rome [ed. — designed circa 1912, as he notes, by the Beaux Arts firm of McKim, Mead & White] — home abroad to American artists and scholars since 1913 — as the youngest recipient of the Rome Prize Fellowship in Musical Composition. . . .

America Academy Rome Classical Architecture Inspires a Return to Beauty in Classical Music
The American Academy in Rome (1913) – Architects: McKim, Mead & White

That was also year I came to understand the reasons why “art music” had become the mess it had: A Faustian marriage of Hegelian teleology and apocalyptic 20th-century world wars. [ed. — compare the ideology underlying architectural Modernism; Faust, recall, sold his soul to the devil] For a young composer entering into this world the sanctioned choices felt impossibly narrow. . . .

Here were the rules from the dark heart of 1970s orthodoxy:

No octaves. Ever.

Pre-compositional charting: required.

Never repeat anything.

Nothing linear.

Continuity or atmosphere verboten.

Basically, if you want to sing, join a choir.

Don’t let any revisionist historian tell you otherwise — it was a closed system. The battle lines were clearly drawn: tonality versus atonality, serialization versus alleatoric/open form/conceptualism. . . .

Living for a year in one of the wellsprings of Western Civilization helped me find the courage to look inward, to locate that which was particular to me. Visiting the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, Masaccio’s elemental frescoes rattled me — so stripped of artifice, lyric, human, and bare. How could I find such clarity in my own music? Where could I find notes that spoke the truth? . . .

History is not our enemy: A renaissance Italian architect might have looked at Roman house and said: “here is a form that I can use for my own purposes.” The result would be anything but a copy — but a playful riff on the prevailing orthodoxy. We can always learn from what came before us, but we actually need to look at it.

This entry was posted in architecture, beauty, classicism, Edgard Varèse, Iannis Xenakis, Le Corbusier, McKim Mead & White, Modernism, music. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Classical Architecture Inspires a Return to Beauty in Classical Music

  1. Very good article. I have often mused on the connections between musical and architectural education.
    Even in the 1970s students were taught the principles of harmony and counter point. In architecture a solid grounding in the equivalent discipline – the classical orders – has been off the curriculum for many years. The best modernist buildings are usually the early examples designed by architects with a classical education.

  2. Bob the Chef says:

    I agree, although I find Austen’s use of the phrase “best modern architecture” is a bit of an oxymoron. The very essence of modern architecture is a rejection of the classical, and so by definition, any modern architecture informed by classical training, while objectively “better” (less worse) than purer exemplars, is bad modern architecture in that it succumbs to classical standards, thus departing from the sick standards and measures of modern art.

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