Howard talks acoustics, Renaissance Venice

Professor Ellen Rosand introduces Deborah Howard, who kicks off the Franke Lecture Series on Thursday, discussing the link between Venetian Renaissance architecture and music.
Professor Ellen Rosand introduces Deborah Howard, who kicks off the Franke Lecture Series on Thursday, discussing the link between Venetian Renaissance architecture and music. Photo by Earl Lee.

When music sweeps through a cathedral, more is at work than just the choir, Cambridge University architectural history professor Deborah Howard said at a talk in the Whitney Humanities Center on Thursday.

Howard kicked off this fall’s Franke Lecture Series by discussing the connection between music and architecture in Renaissance Venice. What started as a small lecture in a seminar room grew quickly as 90 students, faculty members and New Haven residents arrived, forcing the talk to be moved to the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium. An esteemed scholar in the field of Renaissance Venetian Studies, Howard has published several books on the subject, most recently, “Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice: Architecture, Music, Acoustics.”

In Thursday’s lecture, Howard described the inspiration for her most recent book, a research project designed to demonstrate the connection between the buildings of Renaissance Venice and the music performed in them.

“Buildings are not just to look at; buildings impinge on all the five senses,” she said. “The sound of a building is very important as to how you feel about it.”

Her project combined art history, musicology and acoustics to study how different architectural styles of Venetian Renaissance buildings influence the experience of sound. She used advanced technology to measure acoustics in various churches, monasteries and hospitals, including the famous St. Mark’s Basilica, with the aid of Cambridge’s Choir of St. John’s College. In each site, the choir would sing a traditional 16th-century Italian song while the scientific instruments measured characteristics such as volume, resonance, clarity and timbre.

Her Yale presentation incorporated pictures of the locations, sound clips of the choir in various locales, and graphic models of the churches with animated sound waves showing the acoustic progression of the music.

Lecture attendees Alyssa Denning ’13 and Sijia Song ’14 said that, though they had been reading Howard’s work in their class, hearing her talk illuminated a different aspect of the study: the scientific. Song, who had heard the St. John’s Choir sing in Cambridge over the summer, said she was particularly struck by the realization of how different a choir can sound in different places.

“It is really a new way of thinking about music,” Song said.

Francesco Casetti, a film and media studies professor, said he was impressed by the fusion of humanities knowledge and scientific research Howard’s lecture presented. He praised Howard’s choice to create a field experiment for her humanities-based research.

Catherine Whittinghill DIV ’13 seconded Casetti’s statement.

“It really crystallizes every kind of beauty,” she said. “Scientific, theological, artistic swirl together and meet in beautiful harmony.”

Howard’s next book, “Venice Disputed: Marcantonio Barbaro and Venetian Architecture 1550-1600,” will be published this month by the Yale University Press.

This fall’s Franke lecture series are offered in conjunction with the Yale seminar “Art and Music in Venice” taught by art history professor Robert Nelson and music professor Ellen Rosand.

Comments