Buildings and music

Thinking back to my student years, I feel rather bad how I took Cambridge for granted—not least its architecture, such as the astounding ancient edifices that served as concert venues for us. Buildings like King’s College chapel only came to mean more to me later, when we were often condemned to performing in slick soulless concert halls—the airport lounges of WAM, where mere scientific “acoustics” rule OK. Of course, some of the older concert halls have acquired a patina—I think of Alan Bennett’s attachment to Leeds Town Hall (for the journey home, see here).

In Oxford I always loved the miniature Holywell music room, but again I somehow took it for granted. Built in 1748, it’s probably the oldest purpose-built music room in Europe, and Britain’s first concert hall. Wood is good—anyway it’s a wonderful room, both intimate and austere.


Not for the usual reasons, I remember rather little about the 60s (as they say), but I did go to a beautiful concert there around 1972 with the Allegri string quartet, led by my teacher Hugh Maguire. I love the way Hugh played the Mendelssohn A minor quartet. Actually, I love the way he played everything—here’s my tribute to him.

Oxford is also blessed with Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian theatre, where I’ve done many memorable concerts.

And then in London there’s the Royal Albert Hall—its in-the-round shape, with the arena, again encouraging a close relationship with the Proms audience (cf. the 18th-century Rotunda). Both building and audience somehow produce a special kind of silence. In Barcelona, the Palau de la Música Catalana has a wonderful atmosphere.

Broadening the theme to sporting performance, the Centre Court at Wimbledon is an exhilarating arena.

Centre Court

On the Li family Daoists’ 2013 tour of Germany our most evocative venue was the Peterskirche in Heidelberg (see also here, under “The reform era”).

Indoor venues are contradictory. In the concert hall, where one “shares intimate and personal cultural moments with strangers“, the very size of the venue seems to mitigate against such intimacy, all the more since the audience is seated in long impersonal rows. The atmosphere of a jazz club, sitting cosily with drinks around little tables, is far more conducive; but economics, and snobbery, make it an unlikely format for WAM.

Of course, rather little music-making in the world takes place in purpose-built concert halls, and not so much of it even indoors. Try Chinese temple fairs, Moroccan ahouach, Andalucian flamenco, or the various ritual sites at a Navajo ceremony… And dingy low-ceilinged basements can host magical events too; venues like the Łódź YMCA, the Wigan Casino, or a church hall may make numinous locations for meaningful performance.

See also Consecrating the sacred space, and What is serious music?!.

9 thoughts on “Buildings and music

  1. Pingback: A tribute to Francis Baines | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: The late great Hugh Maguire | Stephen Jones: a blog

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  8. Pingback: Consecrating the sacred space | Stephen Jones: a blog

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