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Dr Andy Moorhouse on piano ...

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- presented by Prof Trevor Cox

Concert Hall Acoustics: Art and Science

Musical Acoustics

Acoustics has been an important influence on music.  Many composers have had in mind, consciously or subconsciously, the acoustics of the space in which their music will be played. This page describes how the acoustics of concert halls and churches have influenced musicians

We have only to listen to a piece of music played in the ‘wrong’ type of space to appreciate just how important the acoustics are. An obvious example of music written for partiuclar and distinctive acoustics is church music.  Greogorian chant was written for medieval cathedrals with long reverberation times; similarly organ music of any period requires a reverberant space. E. Power Biggs said:  “An organist will take al the reverberation time he is given, and then ask for a bit more….  Many of Bach’s organ works are designed …. to explore reverberation.  Consider the pause that follows the ornamented proclamation that opens the famous Toccata in D minor.  Obviously this is for the enjoyment of the notes as they remain suspended in the air”. Church music sounds wrong when performed in a small non-reverberant space with a lot of acoustic absorbent such as curtains and carpets. More information on reverberation can be found elsewhere in this exhibition.

An early example of a composer composing for a specific building was Perotin, who in the 12th century composed hymns and sequences for the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. In the 17th century, the Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieli composed choral and instrumental music to be played in a particular church – St. Mark’s in Venice.   He deliberately exploited the acoustics of St. Marks to give brilliant antiphonal and echo effects, sometimes using two choirs or ensembles in different part of the church.

Ernst Meyer has described, how, in Italian churches at this time, architectural possibilities for musical effects were exploited to the full.  “Every feature in this music is devised to the same end: the listener is to be overwhelmed with beautiful sound, sound of a magnificence, power, and splendour rarely reached after Gabrieli’s death by any other seventeenth century composer.”

Johann Sebastian Bach also composed for a particular church –  Thomaskirche in Leipzig.   Hope Bagenal, the senior acoustic consultant of the Royal Festival Hall, considered that the insertion of galleries in Lutheran churches, which reduced reverberation “is the most important single fact in the history of music because it leads directly to the St Matthew Passion and the B Minor Mass”

Composers such as Haydn and Mozart in the 18th century composed music for patrons and their guests.  The music was played in highly furnished rooms, or chambers, in their patron’s palaces.  Chamber music such as their’s loses its clarity when played in a reverberant space.

In 1827 Berlioz complained about concerts he heard at the Paris Opera  “The symphonies of Haydn and Mozart when played by an inadequate orchestra in a hall far too large and acoustically unsuitable might as well have been played on a plain.  They sounded small, frigid and incoherent." Berlioz, in fact, had a fair amount of acoustic knowledge which influenced his composition.  His Requiem was written for Les Invalides in Paris.  Bill Allen, another of the acoustic consultants of the Royal Festival Hall wrote  “Berlioz was interested in acoustics and seems to have know exactly what he was about.  I have heard the Berlioz piece twice in St Paul’s, one in the Albert Hall and twice in the Festivla Hall.  There is no doubt where it sounds best and that is in St Paul’s.”

Wagner was an example of a composer becoming a successful acoustic expert when he assisted in the design of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre in 1876.  This radically designed space has an orchestra pit with room for up to 130 players which extends deep under the stage.  The orchestra sound loses much of its treble, with more middle and bass frequencies escaping the pit.  This leads to the distinctive subdued haunting Wagner sound and enables the singers to be heard above the large orchestra.

One of the older halls with an excellent reputation for its acoustics is the Musikverein in Vienna.  Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler all composed in Vienna and were influenced by the acoustics of this hall.

The acoustical characteristics of many twentieth-century concert halls have been driven by the use of larger orchestras and the need to accommodate a range of events, not just orchestral concerts.  The clear, lucid, sound produced in these halls, however, perfectly suits the distinctive percussive and complex rhythmic sound of composers such as Stravinsky.

In the later twentieth century, many modern composers are exploring the use of electonics to produce a distinctive sound. As you go around this exhibition you will see examples of various concert halls, and some of the factors that affect the acoustics of a hall.

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(c) Bridget Shield, Trevor Cox 1999/2000. The material maybe re-used provided a link to the website is provided and a clear acknowledgement to the curators given.