A Peek at the Past: Symphony Hall
Home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), and the Boston Pops, as well as host to dozens of other musical performances every year, Symphony Hall is considered one of the best concert halls on the planet. We can thank a Harvard physicist for this acoustical gem that we’re enjoying more than a hundred years after its creation.
When the BSO’s original home, the Old Boston Music Hall, became endangered in 1893 due to a planned transit project, the BSO’s founder, Henry Lee Higginson, began raising funds for a new, permanent home for his orchestra, which began performing in 1881. Patterned after several European concert venues by McKim, Mead and White, the same architects who created the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, the building incorporated, for the first time in history, scientifically derived acoustical principles meant to enhance the sounds coming from its stage. For this purpose, Wallace Clement Sabine, a young assistant professor of physics at Harvard University, was hired. The shapes of the walls, niches, balconies and ceiling are all designed to distribute the sound in such a way that there is, for listening purposes, nary a bad seat in the house.
Opened in 1900, Symphony Hall was declared a National Historical Landmark in 1999. Some of its most notable features are 16 replicas of ancient Greek and Roman statues lining the hall, which help disperse the sound, and the 1949 Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, which was completely refurbished in 2003 and is considered one of the finest organs in the world. Another detail to look for is the name of a composer, the only one inscribed on the interior since the BSO directors agreed his was the only music that would stand the test of time: Beethoven. So as you sit down to a concert by the BSO, Holiday Pops or Handel and Haydn Society’s annual performance of Handel’s Messiah this season, make sure you take a minute to appreciate not only the art on the stage, but also the science that makes it possible to hear the music to its fullest.
Photo: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library