There are many places to hear music in Boston but none are as densely layered with the cultural past, or as palpably connected to the historic soul of the city, as Symphony Hall. And none can wrap itself so seamlessly around an orchestra.
Even more iconic, for some, than Fenway Park, Symphony Hall is the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops. It is world-renowned for its superlative acoustics, and it is the symbolic heart of the city’s musical life. In short, no return to Boston or first-time trip would be complete without a visit.
Enter Symphony Hall, and, even when it is empty, the space feels somehow expectant of future music and charged by what has transpired there. “It’s as though the hall,” John Williams once observed, “has a memory bank that stores in the molecules of its walls all of the sounds it creates with the orchestra and the audience.”
Symphony Hall was the vision of the financier and philanthropist Henry Higginson, who founded the BSO in 1881 — “a full and permanent orchestra, offering the best music at low prices,” as a now-famous press notice put it — and went on to support the ensemble for more than three decades. At first, the orchestra performed downtown in the Boston Music Hall, a grand but drafty space that lacked many modern conveniences, and Higginson dreamed of fuller and more permanent things. In 1892, he bought the land at the corner of what would become Massachusetts and Huntington avenues — then a remote area sliced up by railroad tracks.
It was a prescient choice. Symphony Hall would become the anchor tenant in the city’s new Cultural Mile, a stretch along Huntington Avenue that would soon house the Museum of Fine Arts, the New England Conservatory, and the Boston Opera House (of blessed memory). To design the hall, Higginson chose the New York-based architect Charles Follen McKim, who is today best known locally for another nearby building project, the Boston Public Library.
As befitted the century then drawing to a close, in which art took on qualities of the sacred previously reserved for religion, Higginson’s new hall would be a temple of music — complete with Ionic columns, neoclassical statues, and a basilica-like layout. It would be rectangular in shape like the Gewandhaus, the Leipzig concert hall on which Boston’s was partly modeled, and whose memory Symphony Hall has rather poignantly preserved after the Gewandhaus was destroyed in the Second World War.
Symphony Hall’s exterior has been compared to an Italian Renaissance Church while another local hall with similar attributes has been said to evoke a New England barn. In truth, the BSO’s home splits the difference, projecting that signature blend of noble aspirations and straight-backed aesthetic conservatism that is perhaps inseparable from the ethos of the city itself. “One thinks of Symphony Hall,” wrote the Globe’s longtime architecture critic Robert Campbell, “as one thinks of those Boston ladies of the Victorian era who . . . hid their new gowns from Paris in the closet for a year so they wouldn’t look too fashionable.”
But of course, no one comes to Symphony Hall in order to contemplate it from the sidewalk. The interior — with those glowing golden organ pipes, that coffered ceiling, and that gilded proscenium crowned by the famed Beethoven medallion — projects a certain spartan luxury which was itself the result of both cost-cutting measures late in the construction and Higginson’s own aesthetic preferences (“I always like the severe in architecture, music, men and women, [and] books,” he wrote to McKim). More than anything, the building exudes a heightened sense of purpose: You have not come to socialize, or to have your eyes lured away by visual opulence, but rather to listen.
And fortunately for you, Higginson and McKim had a third member of their team who made this tradition-minded building simultaneously a cutting-edge experiment in the future of sound. As the building’s design was taking shape, an assistant professor of physics named Wallace Sabine was running around Harvard campus in the middle of the night, schlepping seat cushions in and out of Sanders Theatre. The goal was not some clandestine reupholstering but rather to discover the first modern scientific formula for calculating reverberation. And he made his breakthrough just in time.
Having ushered in the dawn of architectural acoustics as a modern science, Sabine quickly lent his expertise to Higginson, suggesting numerous modifications to the designs, from the dimensions of the building to its spacial layout to the coffering on the ceiling. It worked. While Symphony Hall has its share of flaws — including a stage that is too small for a lot of symphonic repertoire, inadequate backstage and rehearsal areas, and famously uncomfortable seats — it is nonetheless routinely cited as among the three best-sounding spaces for acoustic music in the world (the others being Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and Vienna’s Musikverein).
So what? So everything. The hall opened on Oct. 15, 1900, and over the years, music history has been made there time and again (the list includes the world premiere of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and the American premiere of Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms”); the greats of classical and jazz have passed through or performed there (Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Ravel, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and on and on); and the hall to this day, frequently rented out by the BSO to local groups, overflows with music almost every night of the week.
It also turns out that, when it comes to the core qualities of an orchestra’s sound, architecture is destiny. Any ensemble’s home concert hall across the decades inevitably influences how it plays. In this case, the acoustics of Symphony Hall, with its almost ideal reverberation times, became the secret ingredient of the BSO’s unforced elegance. The players have always been able to hear each other — and be heard — without any extra effort to project. Or as former BSO music director Seiji Ozawa once put it, “the sound just flies.”
All of this makes the space, in 2022, that much more precious. So much music we encounter today is somehow digitally meditated, which brings obvious benefits in terms of convenience — but many people still yearn, whether consciously or not, for direct contact with the real thing. And after two-plus years of streaming, Zooming, and singing happy birthday over FaceTime, surely the analog wonders of Symphony Hall have never in its long history sounded so good.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.