The Importance of Venues to Music – Part 1: Opera

It is impossible to untangle the importance of location from a piece of music. It’s subtle, and it can be deceptive, but it is always there. Just to prove it, we can perform a brief thought experiment: Imagine an early music ensemble playing unamplified in your favourite night club. The sounds wouldn’t carry throughout the space and it is likely to sound very dry and flat with little reverberation to fill out the sound. Then imagine a EDM producer playing a set in a cathedral, with the melody lines and the rhythms becoming mushy and indistinct in the echoing space, and you can start to see that nowhere is the musical blank canvas that it first appears. The term “good acoustics” becomes meaningless, the acoustics of a place can only be suitable to what’s being performed. Not that that’ll stop people, especially me, from discussing how good the acoustics of a place are.

Before I continue I would like to mention a lecture given by David Byrne that effectively summarises everything I’m saying here and even discusses how even more abstract notions of venues such as personal music devices, radio and even the inside of a car have shaped the music written for these spaces. However, considering said lecture is a quarter of an hour long it’s worth me summarising and elaborating on some of the examples he gives.

bayreuthorchestra
The orchestra pit of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The wooden platform above the musicians forms part of the stage

The design by Richard Wagner of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus demonstrates this relationship. The expanded orchestra pit enables an expanded range of instruments as well as an expanded dynamic range (by which I mean: Wagner could be louder). Unlike earlier Italian opera houses with emphasis placed on nobility in boxes and stalls surrounding the stage, the Festspielhaus enables each member of the audience to have pretty much the same listening experience as everyone else. The Festspielhaus is also small relative to rival opera houses, meaning singers on stage are no longer forced to compete with the orchestra to project to the audience. The seating arrangement based on the ancient greek theatron also takes advantage of how sympathetic this design is to the projection of the human voice to enable a singer to be perfectly intelligible over an orchestra even to the back row.

bayreuthseating
Seating at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Note the resemblance to a Greek Amphitheatre

This is what must be remembered about the Festspielhaus: Wagner wanted to push the boundaries of the music he wrote, so he commissioned a new space to enable it to be performed. He expanded the orchestra pit to accommodate more bass instruments and to increase the volume the orchestra could reach. It was deliberately smaller than would be expected so that the performers on stage could be heard more clearly during the quiet moments and to emphasise the tome of their voices. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus is integral to the performance of a Wagnerian opera.

This is just the start. As time goes on I will discuss further case studies and examples of the close link between music and space, talking about everything from Punk to the Palaeolithic (And a bit in between).

Further reading:

Byrne, D. (2012) How Music Works

Garai, M., Ito, K., D’Orazio, D., De Cesaris, S. and Morandi, D. (2015) The acoustics of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus

 

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