If we think of music as a mirror of culture, then all music has something to tell us about ourselves and our history. Likewise, the places associated with this music—cities, landmarks, buildings—can teach us about our society and our past, and the powerful and lasting connections between art, architecture, and music.
Countless historic buildings have played a part in the story of music and place: as the sites of premieres, the homes of ensembles, and even as acoustic inspirations. In this list, we’ll take six snapshots of moments in history when music and architecture came together and created something beautiful.
Basilica di San Marco
“Procession in the piazza San Marco” by Gentile Bellini (1496). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The grand, resonant space of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice has a traditional association with polychoral writing: that is, music for double choir. Known in Italian as cori spezzati (“broken choirs”), polychoral technique features multiple ensembles in antiphonal response. This style was popular throughout Venice by the sixteenth century, but it grew to special prominence at St. Mark’s, likely because the music chapel’s two organs and multiple choir lofts were perfect for antiphonal effects.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Flemish composer Adrian Willaert composed innovative psalms for cori spezzati when he taught at the basilica’s choir school in the 1550s, and the polychoral tradition continued with his successors, including Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi. On festive occasions, wind and string instruments joined the choirs of San Marco, memorably in Giovanni Gabrieli’s Sacrae symphoniae. This performance of Gabrieli’s Jubilate Deo à 10 (from Sacrae Symphoniae II) was recorded at the Basilica of St. Mark in 1967.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Photograph by Dennis Jarvis, via Wikimedia Commons
The Teatro Colón is one of the world’s great opera houses. The first Teatro Colón operated from 1857-1888: that building was replaced by the current Teatro in 1908, which opened with a production of Verdi’s Aïda. The second Teatro became particularly known for its fine acoustics. The Teatro Colón is home to a permanent orchestra (one of the oldest in Argentina), a ballet company and a chorus. It has also been a center of musical learning since 1919, and is currently home to the Institute of Advanced Studies in Art.
Photography by Carlos Zito, via Wikimedia Commons.
In addition to traditional repertoire operas, the Teatro Colón has presented premieres of more fifty than operas by Argentine composers, including Héctor Panizza, Alberto Ginastera, and Mario Perusso. The Teatro also has close connections with the four Castro brothers, composers and musicians who made an indelible mark on Argentine music in the twentieth century. The composer José María Castro played in the Teatro’s orchestra early in his career, and his younger brother Juan José Castro became the Teatro’s Director in 1933.
In this historical recording, Wilhelm Furtwängler conducts the Orquesta Estable del Teatro Colón in José María Castro’s delightful Obertura para una ópera cómica (Overture for a Comic Opera, 1934).
Theater in der Josefstadt
Early 19th-century depiction of the Theater in der Josefstadt. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Some musical compositions owe their existence specifically to a building: Beethoven’s Overture to The Consecration of the House is one of them.
In 1822, the impresario and playwright Karl Friedrich Hensler opened a newly rebuilt theater in the Josefstadt district of Vienna. Hensler turned to his friend Ludwig van Beethoven to write a piece of music for opening night. Using a libretto from Carl Meisel called Die Weihe des Hauses (The Consecration of the House), Beethoven wrote a cantata for the occasion, which he conducted at the theater’s opening on October 3, 1822. This choral piece may be rarely heard today, but its overture, Beethoven’s Op. 124, remains a central part of the orchestral repertory: in fact, Portland’s own James DePreist directed it at the Oregon Symphony’s first performance at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Photography by Thomas Ledl, via Wikimedia Commons.
Though it no longer specializes in classical music, you can still catch a play in the Theater in der Josephstadt: it remains a working theater to this day.
Photograph by Maksym Kozlenko, via Wikimedia Commons.
Built in the 6th century under the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, the Great Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople originally served as the Eastern Roman Empire’s state church. Liturgical music was composed especially for its magnificently resonant space: the asmatikē akolouthia (Greek for “chanted service”) was the rite sung only at Hagia Sophia. When the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453, this house of worship was transformed into a mosque. Today Hagia Sophia is a museum, celebrated for its diverse religious history, and as a prime example of Byzantine architecture.
Photograph by Maksym Kozlenko, via Wikimedia Commons.
Because Hagia Sophia no longer functions as a church, the Byzantine chant written for its space has not been heard there for centuries. In their recent album Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia, Portland choral ensemble Cappella Romana embarked on an unprecedented recording project: to recreate the unique sonic atmosphere of Hagia Sophia. The result is a compelling record of Byzantine chant, with sound engineered to reproduce the aural experience of a Medieval listener in that great house of worship.
Ford Symphony Gardens
Chicago, Illinois: Century of Progress Exhibition
Orchestral performance at Ford’s Symphony Gardens bandshell, Century of courtesy of Progress records, courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.
In 1933 and 1934, Chicago hosted the Century of Progress Exposition, a World’s Fair built on the shore of Lake Michigan. Among the fair’s ephemeral art moderne structures was the Ford Symphony Gardens, an outdoor bandshell where Exposition guests enjoyed free concerts. The ensemble which played the Ford Symphony Gardens’ dedication concert was itself a fascinating example of the theme of “progress:” the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago. In the 1930s, all-women orchestras like this one sprang up throughout the United States, filling a gap for professional musicians, as most longer-established American orchestras refused to hire women until the late 1940s.
Audience view of an orchestral performance at Ford’s Symphony Gardens bandshell,
Century of Progress records, courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.
On October 12, 1934, the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago presented a historic concert at the Symphony Gardens: a program of music by American women composers, featuring music by Amy Beach and Carrie Jacobs-Bond, and Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement. Price’s friend and fellow-composer Margaret Bonds appeared as soloist, directed by American conductor Ebba Sundstrom. To learn more about this concert, and the career of Florence Price, check out Rae Linda Brown’s excellent biography, The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence Price.
The Sydney Opera House
Photograph by rheins, via Wikimedia Commons.
It was Eugene Goossens, then-director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, who first suggested that a combined concert hall and opera house be built on Bennelong Point in Sydney, Australia. The Sydney Opera House opened on September 28, 1973 with a production of Prokofiev’s War and Peace. It quickly became one of classical music’s most recognizable 20th century buildings, thanks to its visionary architectural design by Danish architect Jørn Utzon. The Opera House has hosted performances ranging from Australian classical compositions to European opera to jazz and rock, and its stages have been graced by artists ranging from Dame Joan Sutherland to Bob Dylan.
Photograph of Sydney Opera House concert hall by Rick-D, via Wikimedia Commons.
The Opera House is also home to vibrant Indigenous programming. In 2016, Rhoda Roberts, AO, curated Songlines, a multimedia presentation with music by Rhodes and Damian Robinson, and art by First Nations artists projected upon the Opera House’s iconic sails.