French-American Bridge for Medieval Musical Iconography

Music and Architecture: A Shared Aesthetic of the Flamboyant


Russell O’Rourke (Columbia University)

In his lecture “Music and Architecture: A Shared Aesthetic of the Flamboyant,” given on January 12th at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art in Paris, as part of the series “Arts et musique au Moyen Âge,” Graeme Boone (The Ohio State University) invited his audience to perceive analogies between late medieval music and late medieval buildings. Professor Boone made a convincing case for a parallel historical development in the two media over the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in France, from a relative clarity and simplicity of organization to a relative obscurity and complexity of these factors—a complexity Boone, borrowing a term from architectural history, dubbed their “shared aesthetic of the flamboyant.”

Professor Boone first called up historical witnesses to the analogy upon which his talk was premised, noting that certain late-medieval music theorists used architectural metaphors in their treatises to describe aspects of musical composition. Jacques of Liege, writing in the 1330s, compares the tenor of a polyphonic piece to the “foundation” (fundamentum) of a building,while in his Ars contrapuncti of c. 1340, Johannes de Muris calls counterpoint (meaning roughly the norms regulating polyphonic composition) the fundamentum of discant (meaning roughly the sounding application of counterpoint). While some may read these as workaday metaphors, Boone asked us to take them literally: if the tenor (often the lowest voice in fourteenth-century music) is considered the fundamentum of a medieval Mass, then its other voices may be heard as columns and arches, the whole constituting a sonic structure analogous to a stone one. Boone took the analogy yet further by folding in the basic principles of counterpoint: harmonies built on perfect consonances such as fifths and octaves can be heard as the musical equivalent of columns because they have a “load-bearing function” within the musical structure (among other things, they usually mark the beginning and end of a fourteenth-century piece of music), while harmonies built on imperfect intervals such as thirds and sixths can be heard as the graceful interstices between the perfect ones—that is, as arches. Here is an example of the speaker’s creative visual representation:

Framework established, Boone then drew our attention to specific examples in order to draw a contrast between fourteenth and fifteenth-century music-architectural aesthetics. In the Kyrie from Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, written in the mid-fourteenth century, perfect harmonies abound: they not only mark the outset and closing of any given movement of Machaut’s Mass, but also dominate the intervening music. The result is a music whose qualities are stability and balance—qualities to which Professor Boone posited an analogy in fourteenth-century Gothic cathedrals’ tendency to foreground the relationship between their architectural features and their load-bearing structure. (See, for example, the north transept rose window at Rouen Cathedral.) Fifteenth-century music, by contrast, obscures its reliance on perfect harmonies both by employing imperfect consonances with greater frequency and by drawing the listener’s attention away from harmony through complex, often syncopated rhythms and artful devices such as canons. Boone’s examples of the new fifteenth-century style included the Kyrie from Guillaume Dufay’s Missa Ave regina caelorum and Ockeghem’s Missa prolationum. (As a side note, in this aspect of Boone’s argument I noted an affinity with the thinking of Heinrich Schenker, the influential twentieth-century music theorist.) In architecture, meanwhile, the fifteenth century saw the rise of a “flamboyant” aesthetic that tended, in its fruits, to obscure the visibility of a building’s load-bearing structure through what Boone called a “refined polylinearity,” an interesting choice of words clearly intended to echo the musical concept of polyphony. (The comparison between music and architecture can go both ways, in other words.) Examples shown included the mellifluous rose window at the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and the twirling choir pillar at the Church of Saint-Séverin in Paris, both of which disguise their engineering behind beguiling architectural ornament.

In all, Professor Boone offered his audience a fascinating, enriching, and provocative tour through some of France’s greatest cultural monuments of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, all the while challenging us to hear as we see, and see as we hear.

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