Music Room workshop
15th January 2007
‘At home’ summary of papers and discussion
Chair: Dr. Flora Dennis, V&A/RCA
Dr. Tarek Barreda (Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art)
Music in French Architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries
This paper presented the evidence for music-making in a variety of social settings, from the Palace to the townhouse. It began by highlighting the courtly precedent of Louis XIII who held musical entertainments in his apartments at the Louvre three times a week. One source, Henri Sauval, included a description of the acoustics of these apartments. He suggested that the wood panelling of the antechamber where the music was performed enhanced the performance.
Barreda went on to consider the evidence of inventories from the early 17th century, which indicate the location of musical instruments in private homes. These inventories suggest that the ‘great chamber’ was the main site for music. More private performances were given in the ‘cabinet’ which was furthest away from the main semi-public spaces of the house.
By the 1670s, the term ‘music room’ began to be used, for example in Chenonceau castle. These rooms in larger mansions were often part of a suite of apartments used for entertaining. Other rooms in the suite were typically set aside for billiards, conversation or dancing. Again, the example of the royal family was important. The King regularly organised ‘soirs d’appartements’ at Versailles from 1682. At this period, separate ballrooms began to appear in architectural plans.
The last section of the paper dealt with the positioning of musicians within these rooms. In a number of examples (including the chateaux of Maisons, Lavérune and Coursons), special balconies or galleries were built for musicians. As Madeleine de Scudéry wrote in 1650, it was preferable for musicians to be seated in a ‘tribune’ out of sight, if they played during dinner, ‘so that one is freed…from the trouble of the musicians, and of the praises that one is obliged to give, when one sees them more closely’. In other examples, musicians were completely hidden in the domed roofs of a bathroom or a dining pavilion, so that music would appear almost magically over the heads of the guests.
Dr. Mark Katz (University of North Carolina)
The Gramophone and the Family
Mark Katz began by asking us to imagine life without any recorded music, and how we would then explain effect of a ‘voice without a body’ created by the gramophone. His paper highlighted the controversies surrounding the experience of early recorded music, and particularly the tension between private and communal listening.
He quoted a magazine article of 1923 that suggested that solitary listening was unnatural: ‘we would think it odd’. To catch a friend listening to the gramophone alone would be equivalent to finding them ‘sniffing cocaine’. Instead, it was more decent to listen in company, for example at a gramophone concert, complete with applause, encores and programmes. These concerts could be domestic or public: in 1907, 5000 listeners heard one at the Royal Albert Hall, and in 1909, a free concert of Caruso recordings in a Manchester park attracted a crowd of around 40,000.
Mark Katz suggested that early gramophones were embraced by women as a way of enhancing domestic life. They were bought and presided over by women. He then explored the various ways that gramophones changed listeners’ relationship to music. He quoted Elgar’s delight in being able to hear a new symphonic work repeatedly at home, rather than having to travel for the best part of a day to hear an orchestra, for a single performance, at the Crystal Palace. It was this element of repetition that seemed most important to many commentators. Gramophones allowed listeners to analyse and assimilate the innermost secrets of a score. They superseded the ‘dead’ music of the parlour piano.
The social impact of the gramophone was also addressed. Recorded music helped to make dancing even more popular, as people could practice at home before trying out their steps in public. However, throughout the 1920s, music commentators were still criticising the effect of gramophones on the home. Some argued that the peace of the home had been shattered, and the design of the gramophones themselves clashed with the furniture.
Mark Katz concluded with two thoughts. Firstly, with the introduction of the gramophone, the music heard at home was no longer amateur but professional. And secondly, habits of listening to this new technology did not come naturally, but had to be learned.
The discussion began with an exploration of examples of hidden music-making. In some cases, this was done to create the sensation of ‘heavenly music’. Examples included the Danish court, where musicians performed in the cellar, and music was heard through pipes; or 17th Italian churches, where nuns would sing from behind grilles – again giving the impression of ethereal holy voices. It was also suggested that musicians might be deliberately separated from their patrons so that they could not overhear private discussions: at the court of Henry VIII, musicians were frequently foreigners, and many acted as spies for their home countries. This led to questions about the social anxiety created by musicians, and their ambivalent status. The physical intimacy that was shared with long-standing servants in a household often did not extend to musicians.
The mechanics of making hidden music also raised the idea of tension between the technology (equated with modernity) that this required, and the effect it created – which would be ethereal or timeless.
The discussion moved on to how people looked at gramophones. Mark Katz suggested that some added a visual dimension by using cut-out characters to enhance their enjoyment of an opera, or buying moving cylinders with visual illustrations of recorded songs.
The design of the gramophone itself was also addressed. It began as a plain wooden box, with external horn. However, many women complained that it did not fit into their decorative schemes, the horns collected dust inside, and could easily be knocked over by children. From 1906, some gramophones were produced with internal horns. This shift was a concession to decoration, as they created a less clear sound. By the late 1910s, catalogues showed how designers responded to stylistic demands, by producing examples in the ‘William and Mary’, the ‘French Gothic’ or the ‘Chippendale’ style. Some were designed to look like small pianos or spinets. By the 1950s, however, designers had returned to the original ‘black box’ approach.
This led to a discussion of other aspects of marketing recorded music. Images on record sleeves, for example, would not necessarily correspond to the music. The design of ‘albums’ which held several recordings, was based on photograph albums.
Several questions were asked about acoustic design in music rooms, particularly given the use of domes and reflections (including mirrors). However, it was acknowledged that this is an area of study that is hard to reconstruct, and that even today, the acoustic properties of a room are often achieved more by experiment than design. This developed into a discussion of ‘noise pollution’ around and outside the home. It was suggested that the playing of gramophones would be restricted by property leases as they could be heard by neighbours. This was not necessarily a new phenomenon, as piano practice was at least as audible, and possibly more irritating than a professional recording.
The issue of sources for 17th and 18th studies was raised. Inventories or notary records assessed objects in the house and their value, but did not address the design of rooms. As a result, it is difficult to find out about panelling or spatial design.
The discussion returned to early attitudes to gramophones. In general, early broadcasters and promoters of recorded music, including Scholes, were self-taught or amateurs. However, there was not much evidence of professional performers attacking recorded music. This was partly because they could earn a living as recording artists. But, it was also suggested, for professional musicians, the experience of listening to music was in itself so complicated and personal. Any antipathy towards recorded music was not caused by the sound quality. It was a response to the changed experience of listening. Those in favour of recordings argued that it would help to distinguish ‘good’ music from ‘bad’. ‘Good’ music would stand up to the repeated listening that was a major feature the gramophone culture.
V&A Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London, SW7 2RL
Seminar Room A, Research Department, 17.15–19.00
Nearest tube: South Kensington (link to map)
Please note that the V&A Museum closes at 17.45 on Mondays, so latecomers (after 17.30) cannot be admitted. Seminar Room A is found at the top of the Ceramics staircase, above the Silver Gallery.