Changes in the economic order and social structure of society in England and Europe during the second half of the eighteenth century, brought into fashion a new style in architecture, literature, music and the arts.
A sophisticated style of grace and elegance, the neoclassical style favoured simplicity of form over complexity.
It was all about music, humankind and nature. Its tenets were based on measurements inherited from the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.
It had a taste for structural clarity and that emphasis worked its way into the world of music, taking it forward for the next two hundred years towards a style in which melody was preferred.
For centuries music was based on harmonious proportions; mathematics the key to understanding their unique relationship.
Architecture, literature and philosophy are integral to the intellectual and artistic life of every society in every age, with its spirit expressed through its music.
The new harmonies, of what is now called classical (renowned) music were based on ratios used by ancient Greek and Roman architects.
They were written down in the 1st century by Roman architect Marcus Pollio Vitruvius (c80-70BC – c15BC), who was all about the art of enclosing space. His treatise, the only one of its kind to survive from antiquity, was re-interpreted by sixteenth century Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508 – 1580) when he went in pursuit of a perfect house.
Palladio used the Vitruvian model of ‘man as a measure for all things’.
The ratios were translated and used harmonically by eighteenth century enlightenment composers to best illustrate the connection between music, humankind and nature.
One who achieved this with graceful, elegant and harmonious interaction was (John Chrysostom) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).
His works helped define the attitudes and philosophies, fashions and passions that led to the emergence of the neoclassical style.
Like so many of his peers Mozart would have known about Vitruvius, his treatise and how a perfect harmony of notes had been born through the interaction of man with his natural world from antiquity.
He would have understood harmony, in both its sacred and secular contexts, which related to both ancient Greek mythology and legend.
It is important to clarify the use of the word legend. Some may think that we may be suggesting a lack of truth. However originally a legend was understood to be an illustrative story to convey a profound spiritual truth in an attempt to explain the inexplicable.
Apollo the Greek god of the sun and of music, together with his nine sister goddesses the Muses, were born near the spring Pieria on the slopes of Mount Olympus.
It was there the union of nature and music would have its first and most enduring expression, perhaps based on an enchanting interplay of sunbeams on the water sprouting from freshwater springs that flowed out over the rocks and gently down grassy green slopes.
It may have also been the rushing, raging sound of winter snows melting; natural sounds that inspired Apollo to imitate them on the strings of his lyre.
Apollo enjoyed himself so much playing music that it became a joyous way of expressing thanks for a wonderful life.
Greek mythology supports the view of music and water having a connection. There were springs on Mt. Parnassus, near Mt. Helicon and on Mt Parnassus, which were all considered by the Greeks to be sacred to Apollo and the Muses.
They inspired the creation of literature and the arts and were considered to be at the source of all knowledge. Significant, too, is a medieval belief the word music derived from an Egyptian word moys, meaning ‘water,’ perpetuating the idea of there being an association between the two.
In ancient times when the principles of architecture were first being established people also believed that any type of architectural intervention made by humans had to carried out with due consideration for the genius loci, or spirit of the place.
This has great parallels in eastern and Asian philosophies. Before siting any building the way of the winds, the lie of the land, and prospect were all taken into account. In ancient Greece for instance a house was raised up on one side to ensure the sun in winter would provide natural warmth.
Vitruvius believed that without symmetry and proportion there could be no precise harmonic relationship between any components with their whole, as in the case of a well-shaped ‘man.
In nature the strongest shape or form was the sphere (sun, moon, earth). The square is a man made shape. To ensure continuing harmony within his universe humans had the unenviable task of learning how to straddle both.
Michelangelo’s (di Lodovico Buonarrotti Simoni 1475-1564) drawing of ‘Vitruvian Man’ is perhaps the most well known.
Vitruvius like other Roman architects of his day revered the works and buildings of the ancient Greeks, whose theorists held that the entire cosmos vibrated with the same harmonies audible in music.
Their thought, supported by Pythagorean mathematics and speculative philosophy, was transmitted by Boethius and other medieval scholars to the humanists of the Renaissance in Europe (end of 13th century – around 1600) and from there to those involved in architectural practice until the first thirty odd years of the twentieth century.
Vitruvius reasoned if ‘nature’ designed the human body then all of its parts were duly proportioned to the size of the human frame. Based on that sort of logic the measurements of the buildings a ‘man inhabited should be based on the same considerations.
So he set out to find a formula for establishing proportions for a perfect building so that the people occupying it would feel at ease within themselves.
His success meant that ‘man lived and worked in buildings for at least 1950 or so years based on these measurements, which were considered ‘sacred’.
It also guaranteed the establishment of what we know as classical music. In the 1960’s there was a massive generational change similar to what we are experiencing now.
For architects world wide it was a difficult time. Many of their teachers and mentors had died during the devastating global conflicts World War I and World War II.
This resulted in a great deal of cultural memory loss and the word sacred became only associated with religion due to the anti-religious sentiments of the time.
Prior to the twentieth century the word sacred however had an important meaning that related to a person and their purpose in life: you were encouraged to have a reverence for yourself and your own body. It was your sacred duty.
In this context your body was your temple and sacred architecture was about man respecting nature, himself and his place in the world and universe.
While the purpose of a cathedral building during the middle ages was for organized worship the design rendered by stone masons was based on a continuing tradition of measurements and forms found in ‘man and nature since antiquity.
Nineteenth century neoclassical English architect John Soane (1753-1857) illustrated the point during lectures at the Royal Academy at London delivered between 1810–1820.
David Watkin Professor Emeritus of History of Architecture in the Department of History of Art at the University of Cambridge, reinterpreted Soane’s work.
He reminded us that for Soane and his contemporaries the concepts and philosophies of architecture, which had come from ancient Greece through Vitruvius to Palladio and on to Soane himself were of immense importance.
During the sixteenth century in Italy Andrea Palladio spent a great deal of his life re-interpreting the ancient measurements from the architectural treatise of the first century Roman architect Vitruvius, which had been found in a monastery library by scholar Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) during the fifteenth century.
He has become probably the best known architect in the western world due largely to his I quattro libri dell’architettura (the four books on architecture) which is a combination of clear and direct words and images. The Palladian style is the architectural movement named after him. (Palladianism).
Palladio based his ideal numbers on the measurements of the human anatomy: the finger, palm, foot and cubit (forearm). They were then all apportioned to form a ‘perfect number’, which was fixed at ten.
The finger (digitus), palm (palmus) foot (pes) and cubit (cubitus the length of the forearm) are all dominated by two perfect numbers 6 and 10.
We have 10 fingers on our hand. 4 fingers make a palm. 4 palms make a foot. the length of the foot is one sixth of the height of the body, while the forearm is one quarter or a fourth.
And, our face, well its is a one tenth part of our whole height, which is the perfect 10.
The beauty of the harmonious music Mozart made his creed was not to be fully attained in instrumental music, but also the human voice. Music and religion were integral to his daily life and employment. So he was always straddling the sacred and secular.
His feeling for form and beauty of sound combined with fantasy and poetry means that the legacy of his works is wide ranging in its influences. Mozart was particularly enchanted by the sorcery of singing and song and it made him turn to the paramount form of vocal composition, the opera.
There is a simply delicious scene in the movie about the life of Mozart, Amadeus (1984), where Mozart is introduced to the music of the court musician Salieri by the King who is playing it, albeit painfully on a fortepiano surrounded by the court impresarios and assorted hangers on.
The King won’t believe Mozart has been able to commit the piece instantly to memory from his rendition. So he invites him to play it for them all, which he does with variations as he at first improvises, and then offers to improve on its harmonious arrangements to the dismay of its composer Salieri.
Three memorable Mozart experiences come instantly to mind.
One of the most dramatic and immediately uplifting was the arrival on stage of Baritone Jeffrey Black at the Sydney Opera House. It was 1984 and opening night and he was singing the title role of Don Giovanni in one of Mozart’s most amazing works.
His voice and stunning performance grabbed the audience, who gave him one of the best ovations I have ever heard in that place, except perhaps for Dame Joan Sutherland’s farewell.
His performance in that role caused critics world wide to muse that perhaps he was the ‘greatest Don Giovanni ever’. There was no doubt in my mind.
The second was again at the Sydney Opera House concert when in 1989 a young Richard Tognetti arrived on stage as the all new Leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
Age 23 he turned a select group of musicians into superstars overnight with new direction and inspired playing. It was truly memorable and a complete change from what the ACO had been previously. People cannot believe I was a subscriber to the ACO BT (before Tognetti).
The third was also memorable but in a different way.
It was all about hearing the music of Mozart played on authentic instruments by musicians dressed in period costume in the very same boiserie lined chambers at Salzburg in Austria where the maestro himself had first performed his music.
It was my first encounter with chamber music live and at the age of 28 I was entranced. Magic. On top of that how can anyone who saw the movie forget the ‘divine’ scene in the Oscar winning movie Philadelphia, when it was released in 1993.
It was about a man struggling with AIDS, who is fired by a conservative law firm because of his condition. He hires a homophobic small time lawyer as the only willing advocate for a wrongful dismissal suit.
There is a moment of euphoria as the lawyer shares a poignant moment in his client’s life. It takes place listening to the glorious voice of soprano Maria Callas from a live broadcast on January 8th, 1955 singing the classical masterpiece La Mamma Morta from the opera Andrea Chenier by Umberto Giordano.
There is an instant connection with the audience and the protagonists through their interaction with the music as they are transformed by love through music. This is the moment the lawyer realizes his client is, in every sense a man, not some perverted statistic.
In 1996 Welsh musician and composer Karl Jenkins, released his album Diamond Music. Formerly Jenkins had a career in jazz, and also worked in the advertising world penning musical pieces to advertise a clients products.
The jingle he created for De Beers diamonds was based on the harmonious mathematical principles of Andrea Palladio. It not only sold lots of product but also lots of records when he extended and produced it. He then went on to write other works based on the same ratios, philosophies and principles.
The final De Beers piece, which he appropriately called ‘Palladio’ brought classical music right back into the contemporary scene, which was his intent. Jenkins wanted to prove the continuing relevance of music, based on philosophies and principles established by the ancient Greeks and transmitted through Vitruvius to Palladio and from Mozart to himself as a continuing source for inspiration and hope in the world.
Classical music of renowned excellence, continues to offer a sound that connects with the human soul to soothe, to motivate and lift it up to a place of grace and contemplation. It is all about the perfect harmony of notes that were born through the interaction of man with his natural world from antiquity right through until today.
Alleluia Apollo, Vitruvius, ‘Palladio’, Mozart and Jenkins!
Enjoy Palladio by Karl Jenkins with a solo by Queen of Harps Catrin Finch
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2014 – updated 2018