“Everywhere in the world, music enhances a hall, with one exception. Carnegie Hall enhances the music” - Isaac Stern.
Music and architecture have always had a close relationship. From the principles of harmony and repetition to the concepts of texture and proportion, there are many correlations that relate these two art forms. They have encouraged growth in one another, developing in unison to create the performance experiences we have today.
From sacred echo chambers to great halls, one understands the quality of a space through the context of hearing. Daniel Libeskind says: “sound and space communicate to the soul, not just the mind. It is also communicating with the soul, as architecture is based on balance. However, balance is in the inner ear, not in the eye.” Balance within a space is appreciated when we hear the venue hold an echo, the final note of a chamber performance, or a pin drop, as one can experience in none other than New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
The building’s architect was William B. Tuthill. He had been a practicing architect for 11 years, but he had never built a hall before. Carnegie could have had his choice of any architect, and yet he chose Tuthill. Why—for his understanding of music, as a gifted cellist. He was the secretary of the Oratorio Society, which was started by Leopold Damrosch in 1873. Leopold was succeeded by his son, Walter, who became the conductor for the Symphony Society and birthed the idea of a new concert hall in New York to Andrew Carnegie himself.
Tuthill’s knowledge of principles in both music and architecture made him an exceptional candidate for the job, and his understanding of reverberation helped create one of the most unique performance spaces in the world. From the Palais du Trocadéro to the Bapistry in Pisa, he explored classical European architecture to understand the movement of sound through a space long before acoustics were studied, says the Hall’s archivist, Gino Francesconi. He would demonstrate his theories on how sound travels using billiard tables and applied his theories to his most advantageous job yet—the building of Carnegie Hall.
The design of Carnegie is simple. “No frescos, no chandeliers, no curtains–the detailing inside of the main hall is what you would find in the ‘three for a dollar bin’ at the home depot of the day” (Francesconi). The hall itself was built to be home to all types of performances. It was not designed specifically to house a ballet, orchestra or opera—as most halls were at the time. The main hall is a stage built intentionally to accommodate all. Through its lifetime, Carnegie Hall has housed everything from the New York Philharmonic to political rallies and war protests. Andrew Carnegie stated in the marking of the hall’s cornerstone, “all causes find a home here." William Tuthill followed Carnegie’s philosophy in his design—and time has proven his success in doing so.
Tuthill also had the keen sensibility to create a concert hall where everyone was there to be seen. “All of the levels are tapered back some, there are no barriers between the boxes,[…]so no matter where you were sitting, you were a part of the show… seventy-five percent of the audience could see [the other] seventy-percent of the audience” (Francesconi). While the seating design was socially strategic, it was also sonically ingenious.
The hall’s ceiling is divided into five sections, as are the seats of five cascading tiers, all tapered at the edges, which allows sound paths to spread with near equal velocity; the notes that are carried to Row Q are heard bouncing from the bell of the stage in unison (Francesconi). The unprecedented height of the ceiling allowed for extreme dynamics, allowing even the smallest noises to be heard throughout the main hall.. “Take La Scala [Opera House]. People in the audience, they used to eat, drink, gossip, and yell out… when they liked a piece and would want the encore immediately… That’s what going to a show meant back then” said David Byrne from the Ted Stage. The sounds of the audience were forced to change as the architecture developed to hold sounds in new and exciting ways.
According to Alex Ross of The New Yorker, audience behavior shifted just before the 20th century, as aristocracy was declining and the middle classes were rising. “[They] took control of how the concerts should unfold” and what music could be played. “When Beethoven began his Ninth Symphony with ten bars of otherworldly pianissimo, he was defying the norms of his time… imagining a new world in which the audience would await the music in an expectant hush.” (Ross). On opening night at Carnegie Hall, the audience was witness to what a hall of its magnitude could do for music.
On May 5th, 1891, the evening’s program began with Old Hundred—a doxology also known as Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow. The Organ blared as the hall reverberated from the multitude of octaves. Next came America, played by the Symphony Society under the direction of conductor, Walter Damrosch. Following was the Beethoven overture Leonore No. III. After, Marche Solennelle written and directed by Tchaikovsky himself. The evening ended with The Te Deum by Berlioz. Carnegie Hall was built for pieces like this. You could hear the quietest diminuendos, breathe with the credscendos, and feel your heart sing with the tremolos. This night marked a program filled with awe, curiosity, and new beginnings.
But the mystery still remains about Carnegie Hall- how could a space not built for a ballet, not built for an opera, not built for an orchestra—become one of the most prestigious concert halls in the world? “Its uniqueness”, says Gino Francesconi. The music and architecture of Carnegie Hall coalesce in a profound way, leaving the audience stunned by the final notes and echoes for over 127 years.
-Anna Jean Williams
Exploring Music intern
Archives: May 2018
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