top of page

The Architecture of Sound—5&1 Classical Playlist #28

[Editor's Note: This post resumes Mark Meynell's 5&1 series on classical music which ran in 2020-2021. In this series, we share five shorter classical pieces followed by one more substantial piece—all inside a given theme. With over 600 years of music to draw from, the hope is that you find a few old favorites combined with one or two new discoveries in each post.]

Architecture and music don’t always feel like natural bedfellows. In fact, you might think they were mutually exclusive. One is characterized by solidity, permanence, and physicality; great buildings make us gaze in wonder in 360 degrees. The other is, by definition, fleeting and impermanent, supremely abstract (especially if without words) and invisible. So this playlist probably seems rather futile. As someone once said of all music criticism, ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ But here’s the thing: not only is it entirely possible to say some intelligible and helpful things about music, but dancing actually is often about a sense of space and, yes, architecture.

The German poet Goethe once said, ‘I call architecture frozen music.’ That is fascinating and revealing about both art forms. Music, especially if complex, often needs architectural metaphors to explain it; big themes or chord sequences might only begin to make sense if understood as the invisible infrastructure holding up a cathedral or great hall.

But we’re also going one step further here. We’re considering music written about particular buildings or places, designed to evoke in fleeting sounds the solid grandeur of some great edifice (s). Think of this as a bit of a magical mystery tour.

Má Vlast ‘My Fatherland’: I. Vyšehrad ‘The High Castle’ (JB1:112, 1872-4)

  • Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884 , Czech)

  • Czech Philharmonic, Jiří Bělohlávek (cond.)

Smetana was born around 100 miles east of Prague, today’s Czech capital, but then in a province of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He grew up speaking German but would become identified with the growing sense of Czech national identity and in time would be named the father of Czech music. His major work My Fatherland, is made up of six movements, each depicting something core to Czech culture (whether a place, legend, or event). This, the opening movement, describes Vyšehrad (literally ‘the High Castle’), a medieval fortress not far from Prague’s center, but not to be confused with Prague Castle itself. Vyšehrad now also contains a large cemetery for Czechia’s great and good, including Smetana himself.

Two harps begin the proceedings, creating a sense of anticipation as well as evoking the castle’s origins deep in the mists of legend. They introduce a simple 4-note phrase (right) which is the castle’s signature in this and the later movements as well. Things speed up to give a sense of its history with military marches and assaults, culminating in its destruction. But it still has a life after that, a glorious ruin standing proudly on a bluff over the Vltava river (you can hear that in the music too), and still retains its grandeur and beauty.

La Cathédrale Engloutie (No X. Préludes - Book 1, 1910)

  • Claude Debussy (1862-1918, French)

  • Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

From the Czech lands, we are now whisked away to an island off the Brittany coast in northwest France. Or rather, we would be if L’Isle d’Ys existed today. It is the stuff of myth, an island town now lost forever to the ravages of the ocean, all because of the actions of a king’s wayward daughter. Debussy seems to hint at its great cathedral now fully submerged (engloutie), depicting the sea and mist through which we must peel back our eyes and ears to grasp what he can see. 

Debussy uses haunting, half-filled chords (for the musical nerds, often in parallel fifths) which seem unmoved by the movement of the water. The cathedral then seems to rise above the waves, giving us a glimpse of its majesty, only to fall back into the deep. But it is all so fragile and fleeting - these are just musical hints, after all. We are left wondering if perhaps we could also hear the ghost of a chanting choir accompanied by an organ and the tolling of the bell despite being far out to sea. And before we know it, the vision is lost in the fog.

Quiet City (1940)

  • Aaron Copland (1900-1990, American)

  • New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein (cond.)

We have now crossed the Atlantic and transported to the Big Apple, perhaps in the early hours or soon after dawn. Aaron Copland’s initial version was written as incidental music for a Broadway production of Irwin Shaw’s play of the same name. Unfortunately, that flopped so Copland rearranged it as an orchestral piece. The play’s protagonist is a young Jewish boy in New York who finds his trumpet to be his only solace and antidote to a profound loneliness. So the whole piece is constructed around the meanderings of a trumpet. It then seems to enter a melancholy conversation with a cor anglais, as if the young man hears his own echoes while wandering the deserted streets of Manhattan. 

Even if the piece is unfamiliar, you are bound to recognize all kinds of elements that subsequently became clichés of film music. Copland captures the peculiar isolation of modern urban life so powerfully, one in which we can be lonely despite being surrounded by millions of others. 

I can’t help but see some of the New York paintings of Edward Hopper when I hear this piece. His masterpiece Nighthawks (which is truly breathtaking if seen ‘in the flesh’) was only finished two years after this piece. Nor do I fail to imagine the glistening sunrise reflecting off soulless skyscrapers as the city yawningly begins yet another day.

X. The Great Gate of Kiev, Pictures at an Exhibition (1874 Ravel orch. 1922)

  • Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881, Russian)

  • Les Siècles, François-Xavier Roth (cond.)

This track is one of several in a larger work portraying a visit to an exhibition of works by the Russian painter and architect Victor Hartmann. The last in the sequence is of a design Hartmann had drafted for a new gate for Kiev (today’s Kyiv, in Ukraine) which he hoped to be furnished with great Russian domes and a peal of bells. So we are listening to Mussorgsky aurally depicting the experience of seeing a painting which is itself a depiction of a great building yet to be imagined.

It was originally written as a suite of piano pieces, but the music is so vivid that it is just asking to be arranged for the full spectrum of orchestral colour. In this case, it is the brilliant orchestration by Maurice Ravel (he of Bolero fame). It has it all: the grandeur, a sense of triumphant arrival, the pealing bells, the feeling that you are entering a great destination in its own right. As the music builds, I can just imagine a camera-drone slowly ascending into the air as it takes in more and more of the building and then the whole city.

Carillon de Westminster (from Pièces de fantaisie (Suite No. 3; Op. 54)

  • Louis Vierne (1870–1937, French)

  • Olivier Latry (organ of Notre Dame, Paris)

Occasionally, a building already has its own jingle. The Houses of Parliament in Westminster, central London, certainly does. The chimes of the bells of Big Ben (or as it is now called, The Elizabeth Tower; and in fact, to be seriously pedantic, Big Ben is technically only the big hour bell that goes BONG) have been as universally recognizable as the Nokia ringtone or the old MS Windows startup would become. But its musical simplicity has made it very easy to evoke musically. It is comprised of four tones in two bars, played with developing permutations at each quarter of the hour. Then on the hour, we hear four variations followed by the deep bongs that tell the time. (If interested, you can find out more here!)

Louis Vierne was one of organ music’s greats, as performer and composer (he was organist of Notre Dame in Paris for nearly 40 years). In this piece (carillon is French for a peal of bells), Vierne has great fun with the Westminster jingle. He lets the rest of the organ flutter and flurry, in and out of the main theme with increasing volume and complexity, reaching a glorious climax that demands its performer make the most of the organ’s vast range. One can’t fail to be blown away by the majesty and sheer power of both instrument and place.

Symphony No. 8 in C minor (WAB 108)

  • Anton Bruckner (1824-1896, Austrian)

  • Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelík (cond.)

This symphony is a mammoth, full of huge outbursts, glorious melodies, as well as the sense of vast open spaces. It is not a depiction of a building or place but is music on a vast scale (the whole piece lasts roughly 80 minutes, split into four movements). This is one of the compositions that has prompted many critics to herald Bruckner for creating ‘cathedrals in sound.'

Bruckner was a deeply devout catholic from Upper Austria, the schoolteacher son of a schoolteacher whose home was filled with parental love but also tragedy. Aged only 13, he sat beside his father’s bed as he died of TB. He witnessed the deaths of 7 of his 11 siblings in infancy. But like his father, he helped out in the parish church on the organ and his musical ability enabled him in time to leave teaching. He never married, though would often have inappropriate and unrequited crushes on young girls; there is always the sense of a deep melancholy and social awkwardness around Bruckner. But he was a genius whose time would primarily come posthumously. This symphony is complex but it works best if you allow yourself to be fully immersed in it, to let the composer transport you into spectacular halls, over Alpine peaks and into unexplored corners of human experience.

The four movements are:

  1. Allegro moderato (C mi)     14:40  mins

  2. Scherzo: Allegro moderato — Trio: Slow (C mi → C ma, A♭ma)    14:25 mins

  3. Adagio: Solemnly slow, but not sluggish (D♭ ma)     22:37 mins

  4. Finale: Solemnly, not quickly (C mi → C ma)     22:14 mins


Mark Meynell is the Director (Europe and Caribbean) of Langham Preaching. He was ordained in the Church of England in 1997 serving in several places including 9 years at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, (during which he also served as a part-time government chaplain). Prior to that, he taught at a small seminary in Kampala, Uganda, for four years. Since 2019, he has helped to bring Hutchmoot to the UK and in 2022 completed a Doctor of Ministry (at Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis) researching the place of the arts in cultural apologetics. Mark and his wife, Rachel, have two grown-up children, and they live in Maidenhead, Berkshire.

If you’ve enjoyed this article or other content coming out of the Rabbit Room, you can help support the work by clicking here.

Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here.


bottom of page