The Renaissance period of Venice, Italy, is famed for its vast architectural and musical masterpieces. It was during this time that music became more complex and choirs were separated to produce the first “stereo” effect in Western history. To better understand both the music and the role of architecture in the acoustics of this period, a research team used a combination of historical evidence and scientific modeling to listen to music as it would have sounded in the churches of Venice 400 years ago.
Researchers Braxton Boren, a Ph.D. student in music technology at New York University, and Malcolm Longair, a physics professor at the University of Cambridge, will present their findings at the Acoustical Society of America’s 162nd annual meeting in San Diego, Calif.
Using modern acoustic simulation technology, the team set out to explore how complex polyphonic music was heard during the Renaissance in two of Venice’s churches: the Basilica of San Marco and the Redentore.
“We built a filter for the churches’ acoustics as they would have existed in the 16th century,” explains Boren. “Then we can record a choir singing in an anechoic chamber, with no sound reflections, and put it through the filter to hear the choir as it would have sounded during the Renaissance.”
The churches built during this period are known for their long reverberation times, which blur the fast, complex music that was composed for these spaces. But the researchers’ models show that during festivals when this music was performed, the large audience and decorative tapestries would have introduced absorption into the churches – dramatically reducing reverberation times and increasing the clarity of the music. Although architectural historians had suggested that these churches’ acoustics would be more favorable on festive occasions, neither the historians nor the researchers expected the dramatic improvements predicted by their simulations.
“Our models also show how the Doge – the ruler of Venice – would have heard the split-choir stereo effect during the Renaissance,” Boren says. In the Basilica of San Marco, the Doge’s throne had the best acoustics, but only with a straight line of sight to the choir. Their models reveal that the galleries built during the 16th century were critical to maintaining this sight, and providing the Doge the “best seat in the house.”
This supports the work of other historians who believe that these galleries were built to enhance the stereo effect for the Doge. And it turns out that even during the Renaissance, it took money (and power) to get a really good sound system.