Long before architecture was called frozen music, there was an intimate bond between the two arts. As Michael Forsyth points out in his highly civilized survey of the subject, music is predominantly an indoor process whose sonic quality is determined by its enclosing environment. Furthermore, he contends, composers have adapted their styles to the characteristics of the sites available at the time.
The evolution of musical spaces--or, more accurately, the spaces for "serious" music that form the subject of this book--has been a continual response to musical, societal, economic and technological changes, and those changes are greater and more rapid in our time than ever before. Forsyth's approach to this complex subject tends to be literary rather than technically rigorous. We can assume that this is by choice, since the author is described as a "designer of concert halls, architect, and violinist."
"Buildings for Music" is a welcome addition to the rather scant literature on a fascinating subject. Its 256 illustrations and generous format give it the character of a picture book, but the text is substantial and neatly conceived by period and theme. By focusing on broad currents, it becomes a social history as well as a musical or architectural one. It charts the migration of musical events from churches to the salons of the nobility, to public rooms accessible by paid admission, to opera houses and concert halls built expressly for musical performance.
Along the way we see architecture bend to musical and social forces, such as the development of tier upon tier of see-and-be-seen boxes in classic horseshoe-shaped opera houses, and Wagner's "democratic" abolition of those gilded status symbols in his revolutionary amphitheater-shaped Festspielhaus at Bayreuth. Similarly, we witness the increase in size of concert halls and the parallel expansion of forces in symphony orchestras and choruses as mercantilism and industrialism create a growing middle-class audience for publicly performed music. In our own time, we find the phonograph educating an even wider public to music and sound, but often creating the unfortunate expectation that live performances in oversized halls can--or should--duplicate the electronic wizardry of recording engineers.
Forsyth's skillfully structured and wide-ranging essay is enlightening, sometimes in unexpected ways. His discussion of late 18th-Century French opera houses, for example, crystallized my own understanding of other building types in other countries by pinpointing the intellectual forces that were sweeping Europe and America at the time.
Yet for all its virtues, it is a frustrating work as well. Its architectural approach is more descriptive than critical, and its treatment of acoustics, although usually informative, is sometimes unduly offhand. Forsyth brands it a myth that "there exists a scientific relationship between sound and the arithmetical proportions of a hall," and offers as proof the declaration of an obscure Victorian "architect-musician," H. Heathcote-Stratham, that "all this notion of proportion is utter nonsense." There is no explanation of this wonderfully blustering opinion, however, and no recognition that ill-chosen proportions can create detrimental room resonances.
There is a large dose of British chauvinism in his emphases: London's music buildings are given more illustrations than all of Italy's and France's combined. Similarly, there are nine for Liverpool (hardly a musical capital, the Beatles notwithstanding), but only six for New York, and the text similarly favors British and particularly London structures. The only Los Angeles entry is the notorious Hollywood Bowl, and there he credits Lloyd Wright (Frank Lloyd Wright's son) with the design of the bowl when his contribution was limited to two temporary bandshells, the newer of which was removed 57 years ago.
Even in London, Forsyth's priorities can be puzzling. The symbolically important but acoustically problematic Royal Festival Hall is given six pages, but the newer and much better-sounding Barbican Centre concert hall is barely mentioned, and its acoustics are not discussed at all.
"Buildings for Music" bears comparison with Leo Beranek's 24-year-old "Music, Acoustics and Architecture, a work of very different cast. The heart of Beranek's volume was a systematic documentation of 54 of the world's most important halls by means of good interior photos, consistently drawn plans and sections, various conductors' evaluations, and nicely tabulated technical information. The presentation was focused, most of the graphics were original, and the research was largely firsthand. Forsyth's effort is more eclectic and diffuse, and seems more a product of library work than direct experience. If these books were recordings, Beranek's would be a taut, intense performance captured in good mono sound, while Forsyth's would be an atmospheric and gentlemanly reading processed to audiophile standards. Both approaches have their uses and their devotees, and while I am glad to have both books, I also know of which one I would part with last.