Art history flashback

A visual and musical tour of the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque eras

St. George’s Cathedral, where the Sound Structures artistic and musical tour took place.
St. George’s Cathedral, where the Sound Structures artistic and musical tour took place.

The Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque eras were revisited with stunning musical accompaniment in Sound Structures at St. George’s Cathedral on Sunday.

The presentation, organized by Dr. Peter Coffman in collaboration with the Melos Choir and Instrumental Ensemble, was a visual and musical tour of great European architecture from the 11th to 18th centuries. It sought to prove how architecture and music intersected during the time period.

Dr. Coffman, an art history professor at Carleton University, is currently the president of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada. He focused on churches and monasteries during the presentations, as these works were some of the most significant buildings of their times.

Through a slide presentation featuring his own photography, Coffman walked attendees through a number of significant churches throughout the world, illustrating the architectural design and historical and social context behind each work.

Coffman introduced the lecture with a quote from The Book of Wisdom, one of the books of the Bible: “Thou hast ordered all things in measure and number.” He noted that a focus on an ordering system was typical in the Medieval ages across a number of platforms.

“That ordering system, once understood, could be applied equally to both architecture and music,” Coffman said. “There is no more concrete affirmation of the affinity of these sister arts.”

This union between architecture and music was further reinforced by the sounds of the Melos Choir and Period Instrumental Ensemble, who followed each portion of Coffman’s lecture with a related musical sample. The ensemble specializes in the music of the 12th to 18th centuries.

Each song echoed loudly and powerfully throughout St. George’s Cathedral, further emphasizing the impact that architecture and music can have together.

As Coffman explained the important of geometry within these medieval buildings, the Melos Choir accompanied him to demonstrate what the geometric ratios sounded like as musical samples.

When Coffman presented a square architectural figure, the choir sang in unison. But when he presented a rectangular architectural figure, the choir sang an octave, demonstrating differences in harmony in both architecture and music when combining differing shapes.

This beautifully reinforced Coffman’s point — that the Middle Ages were a time based on geometry and “divine linearity.”

During the Renaissance portion of the evening, Coffman discussed the evolution of the dome, a feature integral to the architecture of many of the churches discussed that evening. Coffman stressed the dome’s hold on human imagination.

“We can imagine no more perfect shape than a sphere, and no more perfect a shelter for our spiritual rituals than a hemisphere,” Coffman said.

“As we meet beneath a great dome, it is fitting to celebrate the noble lineage of the form.”

The choir took their cue and performed two samples chosen for their impact within the resonant acoustic of a domed space.

The evening ended in the Baroque era, with three performances by members of the choir and the orchestra.

Coffman characterized the Baroque style within architecture as “theatrical and full of movement”, much like the final performances of the Melos Choir and Instrumental Ensemble.   

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