Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Architects, composers and music in renaissance chapels

Did Renaissance architects consult composers for their chapel designs? Even if they didn't, they at least had the composers on their minds. Similarly, did composers create their music with particular architectural spaces in mind? Here is a cool short item from this week's Science:
An architectural historian has taken a choir to Venice to determine how much Renaissance architects and composers shaped each other's work. Last spring, with acousticians and musicologists, Deborah Howard of Cambridge University in the U.K. led an experimental public concert tour on which the Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge, performed Renaissance works in 11 Venetian churches and monasteries, including the San Marco basilica.

Recordings, as well as audience reactions, indicated that complex polyphonic pieces reverberated too much throughout large spaces such as the basilica but sounded right in San Marco's smaller ducal chapel. Monastery chapels were the best settings for resonant but straightforward chants. And humbler parish churches adorned with sound-damping tapestries were suited to simple hymn singing. "Each church did generate the kind of acoustic that was appropriate" to its needs, says Howard, showing that architects designed with acoustics in mind.

Composers also probably tailored their work to specific buildings, says Howard, who presented her findings at this month's Cambridge Science Festival. For example, the team found compositions calling for a double choir that in a reverberating space such as San Marco would achieve a "surround sound" effect. "We suppose that many musicians compose their work having in mind a very particular kind of place," says applied physicist Francesco Martellotta of the Polytechnic University of Bari, "but in this case, it is clearly documented."

What a fantastic example of inter-disciplinary work!