Playing with Wren

Posted on May 23rd, 2019 by

A note on music and buildings – just a note from Peter Sheppard Skærved 23th May 2019


Decorative Swag from St Lawrence Jewry (1687)

I avoided pronouncements on the relationship between music and architecture. But it is impossible to spend  time working in a group of buildings which burst from a common impulse and from a group of makers, without being profoundly affected by their counterpoint with music and its making.

In his Ten Books on Architecture addressed to Julius Caesar, Marcus Vitruvius Pollo (80–70 BC – after c. 15 BC) laid out six fundamental principles, which have come to underpin everything which we have come to name ‘classical’ art. These principles are Taxis, Diathesis, Eurythmia, Symmetria, Proprietia and Economia. It’s worthwhile reminding myself of them.

Taxis or order ‘gives due measure to the members of a work considered separately, symmetrical agreement to the proportions of the whole’. And, most importantly, ‘starting from those individual parts of members. ’ putting together the whole structure.

Diathesis or arrangement, is the art of ‘putting things in their proper places’. Vitruvius notes that the crucial tools for this process are ‘Reflection’, ‘careful and laborious thought’ and ‘Invention’, the ‘discovery of new principles by means of brilliancy and versatility’.

Eurythmia is the ‘beauty and fitness in the adjustments of the members’: he talks about the relationships of height to breadth, and breadth to length, and notes that the desired correspondences rely on…

Symmetria, ‘the general agreement between the members of the work itself’. This quality, Vitruvius says (here we are in the territory of his one famous notion, ‘Vitruvian Man’) are the symmetrical harmonies, between the ‘forearm, foot, palm, finger and other small parts; and so it is with perfect buildings.’

Proprietia is style, and style is derived from agreed principles. It ‘arises from prescription, from usage, or from nature’. It demands that the look of a building as appropriate to its function, and that most importantly buildings are constructed so their use encourages health and happiness, near ‘suitable springs of water’, and with appropriate orientation for light according to their usage: Vitruvius was the first to note that ‘picture galleries’ and studios need a northern light.

Economia is ‘the proper management of materials and of site’, that ‘architect does not demand things which cannot be found or made ready without great expense’.

As I play the music of Wren’s generation, listening to, walking around, touching, and looking at these miraculous buildings, it’s impossible not to feel the architects, the composers, the performers, all working with these principles.  Vitruvius wrote that ‘Music, also, the architect ought to understand, so that he might have knowledge of the canonical and mathematical theory.’

The ‘divisions’ in today’s concert seem to gracefully articulate their makers’ understandings of the six Vitruvian principles. At their most basic, they explore ways of dividing space, four-dimensional space, because of course, Time, is the most important ‘element’. In like manner, Wren has imagined this air space, this ‘auditory’ (his word) in divisions.

Playing in a space like this helps me understand the music of Simpson, Baltzar, and Harrison a little better. Music like this, helps me get to grips with the work of Wren, Hooke, and Hawksmoor. It’s not a revelatory notion, but useful, for me, nonetheless.