Frozen Music

“Music is liquid architecture: Architecture is frozen music.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

up, up, and away….!
Hammerin’ Hank (1934 – 2021)

Architecture runs in my family: my parents met in architecture school and both worked in the profession before going on to other fields (my mom became a journalist and my father a landscape photographer). I actually left music for a few years and somehow acquired a Masters degree in architecture only to succumb to the pull of music once again. In both architecture and music I revel in the structure of a great work. You don’t need to know music theory to enjoy a Beethoven quartet but when you do, when you see how the master plays with form, with themes, cutting them up, scattering the pieces, putting them back together but now magically transformed….It’s like the difference between a casual baseball fan who goes to a game for 7th-inning stretch singing of “Take me out to the ballgame” versus the fan who predicts the next pitch because they know the batting average of the man in the box. The more you know, the more it gives back.

The colonnade at the entrance to St. Peter’s, Rome
by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680)

What does “architecture is frozen music” mean, anyway? There are physical analogies such as the “rhythm” of a colonnade or “color” in a section of music. Buildings too can have a melody (what we call “line” in music) as in Le Corbusier’s little gem of a church at Ronchamp.

Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France
by Le Corubusier (1887 – 1965)

I’m less interested in direct comparisons than the ability of music and architecture to say that which can’t be expressed in words. The intimate chapel inside Ronchamp takes me to the same place I go when I hear Debussy’s “Clare de Lune,” just by a different route.

Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France (interior)

The old Penn Station feels like a physical manifestation of the frenetic energy in the finale of Mendelssohn’s quartet in Eb Major, Op. 12.

Penn Station,  New York City
by McKim, Mead & White
(demolished in 1963 and yes, I am still bitter)

The second movement of Smetana’s autobiographical quartet in E Minor (“From My Life”) describes youthful misadventures (including getting drunk for the first time). This music reminds me of the delightful vernacular architecture of the Italian town Alberobello where people live in conical homes called “trulli.”

The trulli of Alberobello, Italy

Music and architecture can create a sense of mystery and timelessness. The opening prelude to Osvaldo Golijov’s clarinet quintet “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” conjures up feelings of walking in a medieval hill town at night, just me and the stray cats, not knowing what lies around the corner.

Street scene of the city of Matera, Italy at night

Bartok isolates a motif of notes going up and down and runs with it in his fourth quartet, expanding the idea until it envelopes the entire work. What better way to express this concept than Paul Rudolph’s Brutalist masterpiece from 1970? Like Bartok, I adore Rudolph’s work - but understand it isn’t to everyone’s taste.

Orange County Government Center in Goshen, NY
by Paul Rudolph (1918 – 1997)
(partly demolished)

I see the innocence and majesty of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” in photographs of a lost America by Walker Evans: an honest and true architecture of the people.

Farm at Westchester, NY, 1931
(photograph by Walker Evans)

Quite a contrast to the cool Euro lines of Philip Johnson’s Mies-inspired “Glass House” which, to my mind, matches the stark complexity of Arvo Pärt’s music.

The Glass House in New Canaan, CT
by Philip Johnson (1906 – 2005)

Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is a piece which teeters at the brink of collapse. Nothing represents this better than Antoni Gaudi’s febrile Sagra Familia, still under construction after 138 years. Both works are brilliant studies in excess that conceal a rigorous internal structural logic.

Basílica de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain
by Antoni Gaudí (1852 – 1926)

If you have suggestions of pieces of music you associate with specific buildings drop me a line at

David Yang, Artistic Director

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