Architecture and Mozart II

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Screen shot of Osmin in a rage in Mozart’s opera Die Entfuhrung.

Here is a passage from a letter by Mozart in Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s 1982 biography, Mozart, in which the great composer, who was apparently not given to theorizing about music, theorizes about music. The passage might be read with profit by architects. Mozart is writing to his father about the composition of Osmin’s F major aria in Die Entführung:

For just as a man in such a towering rage oversteps all the bounds of order, moderation and propriety and completely forgets himself, so must the music too forget itself. But as passions, whether violent or not, must never be expressed in such a way as to excite disgust, and as music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear but must please the hearer, or in other words must never cease to be music, I have gone from F (the key in which the aria is written) not into a remote key but into a related one – not, however, into its nearest relative D minor, but into the more remote A minor.

The way Mozart modulates between the way Osmin expresses his rage and the way the accompanying score expresses it speaks to how architects must seek propriety in fitting a new building into its setting. Even if your building is meant to express an idea at odds with its neighbors, it should nevertheless seek to fit in rather than to stand out – and yet without suppressing its idea so far as to mimic its neighbors. This sort of negotiation among old and new buildings of a setting is precisely what modern architecture neglects to perform – in deference to both modernism’s egotistical principles and to its having long ago abandoned the tools of architecture that enable any such negotiation of this sort.

To modify Goethe’s notion that “architecture is frozen music,” modern architecture is a frigid bitch. … But calm down! Put a stopper in that towering rage! … No! Architecture must never cease to be architecture!

Here is a YouTube clip from the opera, with Osmin’s towering rage muted somewhat in the performance, perhaps even more than in the music, or so it seems to me, if indeed this is the aria about which Mozart writes. And yet it is Mozart, so it is worth listening to even if the performance does not live up to the composer’s theorizing about it. Please, readers, let me know if I have the wrong clip.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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