Music and architecture, cont.

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In October, Roger Scruton visited the belly of the musical beast, in Germany, to deliver a lecture against atonal composition. It was as if  the superhero of classical architecture, Henry Hope Reed, arose from his grave to address the celebrants at the Pritzker Prize awards ceremony. I’m sure Scruton must wonder whether his audience – at the Donaueschingen Festival, the most prestigious celebration of contemporary music, founded in 1921 – was suitably chastened.

The Music of the Future” is a long essay but of interest to those with architectural concerns. Many aspects of the shift of classical music toward its 20th century atonal flim-flammery resemble the movement, over the same period, of architecture from its emphasis on new methods to bring greater virtuosity to the creation of beauty in building to an emphasis, instead, on novelty, innovation, the avant-garde and the Zeitgeist. Thinking about the history of building as one reads Scruton’s thoughts on music generates a deeper understanding of architecture and its curious history. Here is one among many very interesting passages:

Thomas Mann wrote a great novel about this, Doktor Faustus, meditating on the fate of Germany in the last century. Mann takes the tradition of tonal music as both a significant part of our civilisation, and a symbol of its ultimate meaning. Music is the Faustian art par excellence, the defiant assertion of the human voice in a cosmos of unknowable silence. Mann therefore connects the death of the old musical language with the death of European civilisation. And he re-imagines the invention of twelve-tone serialism as a kind of demonic response to the ensuing sense of loss. Music is to be annihilated, re-made as the negation of itself. The composer Adrian Leverkühn, in the grip of demonic possession, sets out to “take back the Ninth Symphony.” Such is the task that Mann proposes to his devil-possessed composer, and one can be forgiven for thinking that there are composers around today who have made this task their own.

The last line causes me to happily recall that I have posted an interview with musicologist Robert Reilly on the revival of classical music, “Modern music in recovery,” in which Reilly talks about the flourishing, now, of composers who are not devil-possessed.

Melody, harmony and rhythm are as essential to beautiful music as they are to beautiful architecture. And although their absence does not necessarily kill interest, it certainly does kill pleasure. To enjoy the parallels between music and architecture, read the entire essay by Scruton, whose The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism is one of my bibles. He is a founding member of the Future Symphony Institute,  where I found his lecture on modernist composition, and whose motto is “Orchestrate a Renaissance.” (The Reilly interview also was reprinted on its website.)

Here is another passage. What is called serial music is contemporary music that is not exactly atonal but has musical phraseology arranged according to mathematical rather than the traditional musical terms of harmony, melody and rhythm. In short, serial music has not gone quite as far in abandoning music’s classical traditions.  The concluding metaphor is perfect. By the way, I think it is fair to say that, as far as musical tradition is concerned, most popular musical types, even jazz, are much more tonal than atonal, which is why people can hum them from memory.

The result of this is that, while we can enjoy and be moved by serial compositions, this is largely because we hear them as organised as tonal music is organized, so that “next” sounds “right.” We may notice the serial structure; but it is the progressive, linear structure that we enjoy. In a great serial composition, such as the Berg Violin Concerto, we hear harmonies, melodies, sequences, and rhythmical regularities, just as in the great works of the tonal tradition, and we do so because we are hearing against the serial order. It is as though the composer, having bound himself in chains, is able nevertheless to dance in them, like a captive bear.

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, 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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2 Responses to Music and architecture, cont.

  1. Tony Brussat says:

    Hey Dave,That was fun — I just watched a documentary that had a short section on Schoenberg (sp?) and I really enjoyed the music. But I wanted to say a couple of things. First, as far a Scruton’s classical audience, which he fears may die, well, so be it. Because the real fire will always be in the hearts of the musicians, and musicians will always be inspired to action by the music itself — which won’t die. For it will be on recording. I know from my own experience, listening to old field recordings by Alan Lomax, that there is a haunting voice which speaks to open ears and influences performance. Classical music, like jazz, has become a victim to academia, and Scruton’s complaints about rules and “invention” (as opposed to “ear”) should be laid at the feet of teachers, not musicians or composers. But it will have its renaissance. In the future, I think musicians will hear the recordings, modern or classical, serial or atonal, and they will be moved to import them whole-heartedly, to turn them into music — maybe the way young Bix Beiderbeck turned the hot jazz he heard coming from the riverboats on the Mississippi, drifting over the water and through the fog at night, into the first incarnation of “cool” jazz, twenty years before anyone ever heard of Miles Davis. Well, just a couple of beers talking.tony


    • Yes, Tony, academia has a lot to atone for in this country, and not just in the realm of music. But let’s not go there. I am wary, though, of the idea that the future of good music must rely on recordings, blessed though they are for those of us who cannot afford the symphony (or other concerts) on a regular basis. As noted the post to which I linked, however, classical music has a relatively large contingent of tonal composers who have emerged in the last decade or so. They have been frozen out by the musical-industrial complex (mostly the academics, it may be), and are not well known. But they exist, and that is enough for them to “orchestrate a renaissance.” And if classical can do it, so can jazz and all other forms.


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