Music in the Life of Frank Lloyd Wright

September/October 1997

Program Notes

Notes and Introduction
In his book titled What to Listen for in Music, Aaron Copland writes about three ways of hearing.  One is the way we listen to background music: as something that washed over us, which we largely ignore.  A second way is to notice what images or scenes or ideas your mind associated with the music.  Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is ideal music for this type of listening (and Disney’s Fantasia is a good example of such images).  The third way a musical scholar or composter might listen: with intense attention to the “building blocks” or the piece, to see how it is shaped and what, if anything, makes it cohere. 

The Big Picture, in Music and Architecture
I encourage you to place yourself today somewhat between these latter two modes of listening—even if it’s a little unfamiliar—because it will help give you a sense of the way I believe Frank Llyod Wright heard music.  His keen ears learned over time to listen for the “big picture.”  Wright loved Bach and Beethoven, from his earliest years, later appreciating Palestrina, Vivaldi, Mozart, and Brahms. 

Wright was drawn to composers whose music has unusual formal clarity.  He most values music which preserves a sense of the whole, even while various ornamental details slightly affect the overall mood of the work.  Now, if you re-read that last sentence and substitute “buildings” for “music,” you can begin to penetrate an important part of Wright’s architectural sense.  Never losing the sense of the whole was of fundamental importance to him, both in architecture and in music.  He wished all buildings—hi own and others’—to share this feature.

An Architect’s Writings on Music
Wright’s life had two periods of brilliance.  In each of these he was more creative and productive than most people are in their entire lifetimes.  In the middle came an completely muddled period of personal, financial, and professional disasters, one after the other, never seeming to resolve satisfactorily.  He left his wife and children in Oak Park for an affair with Mamah Cheney, which ended in disaster when she was killed in the 1914 fire at Tailesin.  During the 1910s and 1920 he managed to antagonize almost everyone whom he came into contact, except for his mother and whoever he was married to at the time.  His commissions and his defensive arrogance did nothing to help matters.

In a sense, however, we are the beneficiaries of his misfortune.  For as soon as Wright became persona non grata in the Midwest, he began writing—doubtless in part to reconcile his own rather grand self-conception with uncooperative circumstances, yet also as an income source.  Some critics dismiss his writing as overly self-indulgent and difficult to read.  While the latter is true, I view his essays as strikingly original.  His fresh voice calls continually for architecture to take its place as a true American social force.  It is inspiring to read the words of one who, like his “Uncle Jenk,” never lost sight of a clear artistic vision and it’s possible to benefits for humankind.

Wright’s Earliest Musical Experience
Over and over again, Wright’s written works reveal his indebtedness to music.  AN Autobiography contains some of his most poignant writings about music.  His early childhood, we learn there, would shape his musical tastes and the overall aesthetic sense which followed. 

Predictably, no child whose family moved every few years would have musical influences from only one source.  Wright’s father was a preacher with a gift for oratory, and some political ambition, but little financial sense.  He typically wowed churchgoers an local newspapers with his rhetorical and musical abilities, and made some money on the side by giving talks on a variety of topics, but he rarely help on to preaching jobs for more than a few years.  Hi wanderer’s temperament fostered neither fiscal stability nor close emotional ties with his children.

Already a bit of a recluse, the elder Wright increasingly took solace from his worldly woes in long, late-night sessions at the piano and organ.  Many were the times when little Frank was forced to pump the bellows for his father on the home organ, almost to the point of exhaustion.  This activity, despite its unpleasantness, instilled in Frank an intimate knowledge of and affection for Bach and Beethoven.  He came to know Beethoven’s piano sonatas almost by heart.  Indeed, throughout his life, Frank retained an abiding love for the music his father played.  In a familiar quote, he wrote that “Father taught me to look a symphony as an edifice—of sound!”

It is my belief that Frank came to know the a cappella music of Palestrina in Chicago while attending All Souls Unitarian on the South Side, at 39th and Langley, early in his career here as a building architect.  The presiding minister at All Souls was his mother’s brother, Uncle Jenkin Lloyd Jones.  Jones revitalized the Western Unitarian Conference and was a powerful force at the Parliament of the World’s Religions here in 1892, which convinced him even further that religious unity was essential.  He was also publisher of the newspaper called Unity, with a pacifist stance so strong that the United States Post Office banned it from the mails for opposing America’s entry into World War I.  Jones was one of the very few pacifist ministers in the entire country who was allowed to retain his appointment during the war. 

All Souls was a sophisticated “big-city” church, which drew people from the fashionable Kenwood neighborhood.  (One of these was Catherine Tobin, who would become Wright’s first wife and mother of his six children.)  The church offered a dizzying array of cultural activities: reading clubs, costume parties, a circulating library, and a great deal of music.  The congregation was a leader in hymnody.  Starting in the 1880’s “Uncle-Jenk,” All Souls Church, and Western Unitarian Conference published several hymnals for general and festival use.

Frank writes fondly of the Lloyd Jones side of the family, which was his mother’s side.  This closely-knit Welsh Unitarian “clan,” was a prosperous and clear-minded bunch, mostly nestled in the hills of southern Wisconsin.  Family gatherings, distinguished in Frank’s mind by ongoing music-making, number among hid happiest early memories.  According to his biographer, he may have been attempting to re-create that happy experience when his family played chamber music at Oak Park home (now that Home and Studio).  It was a lively affair, with wife Catherine and five children each taking an instrument, and daughter Catherine singing.  By all accounts this was one of Wright’s greatest pleasures with his own young family, as was hosing down his boys in the front lawn. 

As you’ll hear, music-making was a lifelong pursuit and passion for Wright.  The Taliesin Fellowship, a gathering of loyal apprentice architects in Spring Green, Wisconsin, was a center for musical activity in Wright’s later years.  In addition, as he developed his idealized visions of perfect American society, including the “Broadacre City” community, he routinely included music in the outline for cultural activity and children’s education.

The Authentic House
Wright made dozens, if not hundreds, of analogies between music and architecture in his writings.  Among them is the following: “True architectural form has innate significance of character, expressed and enhanced by the creative architect’s organic use of ornament.  As melody is in his music, ornament is in architecture [the] revelation of the poetic-principle.”  In addition to descriptions of what Wright valued, you’ll also hear some of what he did not like.  He didn’t mince words.  Wright deplored the hodgepodge, overborrowed styles which he saw as characterizing American (especially residential) architecture.  He loathed what passed for elegance in Chicago’s suburbs, with some amusing invective hurled Oak Park houses and those who lived in them. 

Wright knew, instinctively and intuitively, that a new architecture was possible which would be wholly our own—not only authentic but authentically American, or “Usonian” as he called it, deeply rooted in out landscapes and in our democracy.  Throughout his life, Wright viewed architecture as a potentially liberating force for the American middle class.  He wanted the average working person (or “wage slave”) to be able to live in a house whose design was free from sham.  He hoped and even predicted that these qualities of the house would foster contentment and family harmony.

Robert C. Twombly’s biography of Wright is the finest written to date.  Twombly surmises there that Wright’s own childhood family instability led the young architect to create homes that would both visually and structurally draw the family unit into a hearth-and-home setting.  Thus his designs would compensate for what neither his own intimate relationships nor childhood homes provided. 

Twombly’s psychologistic argument has strong merit.  It is all too easy to decontextualize art, to miss the environment which created it, especially at a hundred years’ remove.  Seen through a perspective which valued domesticity far more than our current postmodern aesthetic, the Prarie-style house becomes-by design and intent—a true home, with a wealth of public space for the family.  If you’ve seen Wright’s most famous buildings, such as the Robie House, Unity Temple, or Fallingwater, you probably share my sense that these building “sing” and “hum”—that there is something awe-inspiring and so very true about them, that everything is in place.

It is that same sense of the whole, of complete integrity, to which Wright so often refers when he comments his favorite composers.  He writes: “Like music-totality, every good building has this poise, floats, at home on its site as a swan on its lake.”  One might think from these words that Wright was a master of the Chinese feng shui discipline, though to my knowledge he never mentions the term. 

Our Invitation to You
This performance is neither hero worship nor a steamy expose.  It celebrates the interconnectedness of two types of art, which occupy isolated, almost mutually-exclusive corners of our cultural life with unfortunate frequency.  We encourage you to concentrate you attention on that grand sweep of artistry which suffuses both the best music and the best architecture.  We intend to make explicit the powerful links between music and Wright’s architecture—connections which, by the way, are built into the curriculum for budding architects at Taliesin West, where music-making is as much a part of the training as are drawing, cooking, and working with building materials. 

We invite you to focus on the extent to which you can hear, or even see, the structure and clarity in the music we sing today.  Stretch yourself to hear the music in a building or design.  Please do participate with us in this experiment, and tell us afterward about what you heard and saw.  Thanks for joining us.

-Jonathan Miller, Artistic Director