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Gothic Architecture and Medieval Music

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Correlation of Gothic Cathedrals and Castles to Medieval Music

Numerous changes in the political, cultural, and social spheres of medieval life were subject to the influence of all kinds of art, including architecture and music. Their interrelations were able to provide a deep understanding of the beliefs and lifestyle of that time. Every great epoch of art added a certain degree to mankind’s creative evolution. Each epoch, presenting a coherent layer of culture, creates a special world of artistic images, welded together by a unity of vision and common response to the demands of the time, a fundamental imaginative idea, and mutual kinship of forms of plastic expression. All the aforementioned determine the essence of the era, its character, and appearance that distinguishes it from other historical stages. Referring to the Gothic era, it stands out among other epochal systems for its exceptional qualities of integrating. This paper will discuss the development of Gothic architecture and medieval music, as well as highlight their interrelations, such as the influence of music on the architecture’s evolution and visa versa.

Overview of the Gothic style

Architecture, painting, arts and crafts, clothing, music are all marked by stylistic unity. All the Gothic art has common features, such as peculiar movement upward. This meteoric elevation is especially noticeable in Nordic countries, where there are many towers reaching the sky. Even in the fashion of the era, elongated forms dominate. For example, women of that time used to wear graceful conical hats. Gothic style can also be seen in the lettering of that time: pointed, broken decorative letters with miniature intertwined artistic images (Cosman and Jones).

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The Gothic style of architecture can be characterized as intimidating and majestic. It expresses a sense of religious rush of the era that survived the mass fanaticism of the crusades for the possession of Holy Land, and experienced the profound shock, caused by popular movements and the widespread idea of centralization. These developments reflect the new balance of social forces, manifested in the spiritual and artistic culture.

The Gothic style of architecture originated in the XII century in France. The two great buildings of France – the Abbey of Saint-Denis and the cathedral in Chartres – can be seen as its beginning (Favier). Later, it spread throughout Europe and became international. The Gothic style penetrated the East later, but stayed there longer. Its national traits can be seen in the Gothic architecture of France, Spain, England, Germany, the Czech Republic, as well as in Italy, creating an almost a separate sub-style of “Italian Gothic”.

Its inherent imaginative solutions actively directed efficiency and enormous power of suggestion. Undoubtedly, any other arts system may be compared to it in the intensity and efficiency of the religious ideas’ expression. Late Period, or as it is called Flamboyant Gothic (XIV and XV century) is characterized by the most decorative and rhythmic lines.

The monumental cathedral buildings are being built not in the monasteries, but in the cities. Gothic style produces church building of a new level – the city’s cathedral, religious building of special ideological significance, designed to collect all of the city’s population under its arches.

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A lot of spiritual and secular palaces of the nobility appeared in the Gothic era. Gradually, the Gothic castles changed their character, becoming a well-fortified residence, which later turned into a grand country castle. This shift to the royal castles was most visible in the XIV century. Gothic castles were not only architectural and artistic structures that were intended to protect the life and property of their noble owner, but rather architecturally expressed the idea of protection, strength, power, and authority in a certain area. Besides protection, Gothic castles played an important role in the cultural life formation.

Gothic Cathedrals

Cathedrals had a special place in the art of the Gothic period. They are the besy sample of synthesis of architecture, sculpture, and painting. Typically, the cathedral situated in the center of the city was the focal point of social life. Bold and complex frame construction of Gothic cathedrals highlighted the victory of human extraordinary engineering possibilities, allowed to lighten the massiveness of the Romanesque buildings, facilitate walls and vaults, and create a dynamic unity of the interior space. The personality of the cathedral, verticalism of its towers and arches, dynamic rhythms subordination sculpture architecture, and the multi-colored glow of stained glass had a strong emotional impact on believers. The Gothic system formed rather rapidly. Gothic cathedrals, with all the richness of their constituent elements, impress with extraordinary unity. It can be argued that their architectural plans included entire systems of decoration, both exterior and interior. Moreover, they are characterized by the unity of the Gothic style in general.

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There is a noticeable connection between the principles of the Gothic cathedral construction and the principles of the largest theological concepts of the time. In its imagery, high Gothic cathedrals sought to embody all Christian knowledge – theological, historical, and natural. All the elements and every man should be in their places, and everything that has not yet found its designated place should be suppressed. In other words, the Gothic cathedral may be considered as the embodiment of the Universe.

Gothic Castles

When hearing the word “castle”, our minds picture images of majestic fortresses, a fantasy genre landmark. There is hardly a more architectural structure, which would attract so much attention from historians, experts on military affairs, travelers, and writers.

If during the Romanesque era the main forces were the monastic associations around the Pope, in the Gothic era the situation changed in the direction of strengthening the secular segments of society. Apart from the cathedrals, medieval castles played an important role in cultural life of that period. They became cultural centers, gathering artists and scholars and forming universities.

Gothic castles began to appear, replacing the fortress type castles and feudal castles. At the same time, liturgical music started developing. The originality and the uniqueness of Gothic castles can largely be attributed to their complex structure and the diversity of existing links between the local parts of medieval Europe. In this case, all the typical generic attributes and structural foundation of Gothic castles in the regions of Central and Eastern Europe had the properties of complex open systems. They were quite autonomous, complemented each other, and their unity evolved historically and gradually. A gothic residence was a kind of a “stone shield”, defending Christian values against the penetration of the hostile Muslim culture. In doing so, they not only retained their former status and imperious destiny, but also continued to develop the tradition of medieval courtly culture, showing with their transformation all the changes that took place.

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While the architectural and artistic image of a castle varied, depending on various factors (natural landscape, socio-historical, socio-cultural identity of the medieval regions), the symbolic content of the castle as a work of human hands had something in common that united all of these structures and made them a unique phenomenon of medieval culture. These royal dwellings provided the impact on the European common culture, character, and style of the civil and religious buildings on the Medieval, Renaissance and early modern architecture.

Gothic castles were a new phenomenon in the medieval society, giving status and imperious prestige to their owner. The bell on the tower of the main castle, as well as the church bell, controlled the time. In the medieval society’s opinion, the castles were a symbol of the higher power and were comfortable and luxurious in comparison with the conditions of life of other people. That is why any resident of a medieval town who had ambitions, built a tower very similar to that of a Gothic castle. It personified the power and authority in the eyes of all classes of medieval society (Warner).

Architecture, Music and what they have in Common

Music played a special role in the history of the Gothic cathedral as an image of the world. In the history of art culture, architecture and music are not linked as closely as architecture and sculpture, architecture and painting, music and poetry, etc. Still, there are certain forms of relationships between architecture and music, essential to the theory and practice of art. Architecture and music may be called sisters as both of them work with the proportions of time and space. Both are inherent in the material and spiritual beginning. It is possible to find the architecture in the music and the music in the architecture. In 1829, Goethe even called architecture “the frozen music”.

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It is possible to highlight several forms of mutual influence between architecture and music:

  1. The genetic commonality of numerous specific historical effects of these two arts is due to their origin from one social basis. Hence, the figurative and stylistic proximity of music and architecture at certain times of cultural development brings out the analogy between the range of ideas, images, and expressive means. It is possible to trace a reflection of a picture and volume in the music. Therefore, one is able to “see” the sea, the castle, the parade, and in the architecture – the musical reflection. In the process of architectural object creation, sound of musical instruments often predetermines the architectural design itself.
  2. The interaction of musical and architectural products can be created as on one or different cultural and historical stages. It is important to note that the creation of musical works inspired specific architectural images in pursuit of “translating” from the visual perception into the auditory. Conversely, musical ideas (orchestral, vocal music) gave rise to architectural ones – spatial, static, and objective.
  3. There is also a tendency to synthesis. A brilliant example is the powerful symbiosis of Gothic architecture and organ music, when it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine what kind of art has a dominant effect on humans. Exactly these problems, resulting from the contact and the interaction from the opportunities and ways of synthesis, are the subject of both aesthetics and theory of art.
  4. Among other possible forms of relationship, it is important to allocate rhythm. It is enclosed in the selection of points to a specific axis, in particular the time axis. These points are like the kilometer columns along the road. It is the same with architecture, when one thinks about such things as facades. And playing the piano is also architectural. The sound of music is defined by time and space. There is a match between music and architecture. And this is possible because there is a deeper psychic structure that the mathematicians call “ordinal”.

Of course, the music cannot and should not “depict” cathedrals or castles, giving the viewer a visual representation of them in the same sense that the architecture does. Musical expressiveness differs significantly from architectural expressiveness. Therefore, there is no “transition” of the architectural depiction into fine music in the musical images that are based on the works of architecture. There is either musical image, inspired by the architectural works, or independently created pure musical picture. In other words, composer’s impression of architecture is born from his experience).

Examples of Architecture and Music Mutual Influence

The beauty of the building can affect the imagination as much as paintings or poetry. If a person is surrounded by harmony, their physical and spiritual condition improves. Especially, if this visual harmony is supported by the beautiful sounds of music.

For obvious reasons, much attention has always been given to religious buildings. In these halls, it was necessary to create an atmosphere of exaggerated solemnity and even a certain fear of the Creator’s greatness, which the visitor had to feel. To achieve the most powerful reverence, the volume of space and the material used in the construction (usually granite, marble, stone – materials that absorb little sound) helped a lot. However, lack of experience and theoretical knowledge of such complex facilities’ creation led to dramatically different results, so there were also controversial installations, along with the acoustically successful.

A good example is the cathedral of Milan, which is a grand and complex structure of Gothic architecture. Still, a specific acoustic discomfort inside it should be noted: a powerful chord reverberates in the cathedral for about 8 seconds, while vocals are an incomprehensible mix of sounds. It is not always convenient to play in such a hall for classical musicians, organists, and church choir singers.

One of the interesting examples of connection between architecture and music is the Notre-Dame Cathedral construction in Paris (1163-1235) that coincided with the institution of the Choral School, headed by Leonin, followed by Robert De Sabilon, Pierre De La Croix, John De Garland, and Franco De Cologne. Nowadays, all of them are well-known names. One can experience the true pleasure to be present in the French Gothic Cathedral at a time, when it is filled with the light, pouring through its stained glass windows, and filled with the sound of the works of these composers.

The first fruit of the Choral School was the emergence of a large musical chants collection for the services in the new cathedral. It was called “Magnus libri organi” (“The Big Book of Organum”). The original of this book is long gone, but its copies, slightly different from one another, were found in different parts of Europe, such as Spain, England, and Italy. This proves it was widespread. Its style is the so-called organ. At first, it was two-voice singing, but the gradual development of polyphonic technique, as part of the Gothic style, resulted in three-voice singing dominance. Very interesting is the formation of the Trinitarian concept in Gothic music. One can draw analogies between the principles of three-part organ and the principles of the triple nave of a Gothic cathedral, as well as between the receptions of modal musical rhythm and the principles of the architectural space division in the Gothic style.


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With the passage of time, elements of folk music began to leak into the choral music through hymns, sequences, and tracks. If the Psalms were performed by professional choir singers and clergy, the hymns at the beginning were the pride of the parishioners. They were inserted into the official worship, though they had inherent features of folk music. Soon, the hymn mass began to force the psalm one, which led to the polyphonic mass.

The first sequences were captions under the melody jubilus, so that one sound of the tune would have a single syllable. The sequence became a widespread genre with the most popular being “Veni, sancte spiritus”, “Dies irae”, “Stabat mater”. Berlioz, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninov later used “Dies irae” in their works, often as a symbol of death.

Along with the organ in church music, stringed (harp, psaltery, dulcimer) and wind instruments (pipe, flute) began to be used. With the weakening of the Church care, all kinds of folk art and poetry began to develop. Bearers of the secular clergy artistic culture often were represented at that time by the most educated segments of the population.

New forms of music began to penetrate the cultural life of that time, in particular folk songs and the art of minstrels. It happened mostly in castles, as the church either rejected their performances or admitted them with great difficulty. However, in the IX century, the harp and a number of wind instruments were very widely used in some monasteries. Still, as literary documents and monuments of fine arts depict the situation, instrumental music was mostly employed by jugglers and minstrels with singing and dancing being supported by instrument sounds.

These jugglers (from the Latin word “joculatores”), minstrels, or spielmann, as they were called at different times and in different countries, for a long time were the only representatives of secular musical culture of that time and, thus, fulfilled an important historical role. Being at the service of big feudal lords, they participated in the performance of folk religious mysteries and acted out scenes from the Gospel stories. To a large extent, the XII-XIII secular poetry evolved from their musical and song traditions. Additionally, the heroic poetry and lyrical content, originating from certain forms of folk theater, significantly developed.

One of the key figures of the musical influence on the formation of architecture was a woman, Hildegard Von Bingen, who stood at the roots of professional polyphony nascent. It was a huge breakthrough, because the chords were subsequently born from polyphony. Many familiar chords could not appear out of nowhere, only from where the ratio of sounds is. A relationship is only possible if there are several voices, a few lines, or, in other words, harmony. If the elements of polyphony might have occurred much earlier in the more ancient cultures, the “professionalized” polyphony happened exactly in the middle ages.

Musical melody is based on the alternation of sounds of different height and length, as well as on the temporary order of sounds. The basis of the architectural composition is built on the spatial ordering of forms. It would seem that there is nothing in common between them. However, architecture is more than just a set of dice, and music is not limited to percussion. As in architecture, there is a plastic figure, a variety of circuits, light and shade in music. as well as a great variety of melodies, polyphony, the nuances of dynamics, and texture. Sounds alternately merge into a single melody. Rhythm is one for all. Frequency and rhythm (columns, bas-reliefs, windows, balconies) are also present in architecture, forming the beauty of organization. One can experience and admire such emotions as sadness or joy with the help of architectural masterpieces (Rudhyar).

Talking about musical and architectural mutual influence, physics also comes to mind. Our world is riddled with all sorts of fields, and each object resides in this “ocean”. Waves pass through it, and they all interact with the object to a certain degree. That’s where it is extremely important to consider the phenomenon of resonance – the phenomenon of a sharp increase in the amplitude of the forced oscillation, which occurs when the frequency of external exposure to certain values ​​(resonant frequencies) is defined by the system properties. Specific frequencies’ measurement is equal to the notes’ measurements. There are three vectors in the architecture, where the sound can move – upwards, straight forward, and to the sides. Using these lengths to spread notes and form accords was one of the key principles in Gothic architecture development. The strings of such instruments as lute, guitar, violin, or piano have the basic resonant frequency, directly dependent on the length, weight, and power of string tension. If the string swings by the short exposure (pinch of the fingers or hammer blow), it will start vibrating at all frequencies present in the pulse action. Those frequencies that do not coincide with the resonance will decay rapidly. Therefore, the only harmonics one can hear are the ones perceived as musical notes. Moreover, if the building is the same type of resonator as a violin is, any waves and vibrations will be trapped in a cavity and sorted. Not corresponding resonant frequencies will be attenuated gradually, at the same time as the appropriate ones will become a standing wave with the frequency. Same happens with a person’s feeling of harmony. Human organs, as well as any physical body, have their resonant frequency. Under the influence of sound with this frequency they may experience an internal change of structure (Rudhyar).

Naturally, the mutual relationship between the shape of the building, its various internal structures, and acoustic characteristics has identified itself not at once, but with the accumulation of experience. Forms, designs, and decorations also changed. They gradually began to be considered as very important during the formation of the sound on stage and in halls.

For example, there is a number of requirements necessary to take into consideration when creating architecture, designed for playing music in it. Buildings and premises for events with musical accompaniment should be designed in such a way as to provide the unimpeded transport of such oversized musical instruments as organ. Another example is special workplaces for musicians, organized in such a way that the musicians were out of sight of participants, but were able to maintain direct eye contact with the master of ceremonies. Using chairs and armchairs, making squeaks and other noises, damaging the harmony of the music, was also unacceptable and needed to be taken into consideration.

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Parallel to this, it is necessary to recall the works of the great composers, inspired by the images of architectural structures. They include Debussy’s play “The Sunken Cathedral”, Bartok’s opera “Bluebeard’s Castle”, cantata by D. Milhaud “Fire Castle”, Bizet’s Symphony “Rome”, O. Respighi’s suite “Fountains of Rome”, Mussorgsky’s pieces “Old Castle” and “Great Gate”.

One more influence of architecture on music is that the style of architecture often defined the musical instruments used in it. For example, an organ could be constructed, considering the architectural style of the cathedral or castle, having special shape, color, material, and even special tonality to fit the surroundings perfectly in visual and musical ways.


Gothic era was full of ambiguity, fractures, a kind of transition from the “barbarian” to something “higher”, and this transitions is visible in the architecture and music of that time. Their intersection formed something incredible, which shocked and thrilled people of that time and still does.

The topic of mutual influence of music and architecture is extremely interesting and does not end with medieval music and Gothic architecture. Still, this period is interesting and important for the further development of music and architecture. As stated above, music has a very strong influence on a person, creating resonance and harmonic sounds, which make person feel better. For many years, people have studied this incredible influence and tried to strengthen it by creating architectural masterpieces able to provide the best sound for the music.

At the same time, these masterpieces of frozen music were true pieces of art, astonishing with their complexity and beauty. No wonder that many musicians got inspired by Gothic buildings and wrote their musical pieces under the strong influence of architectural objects. One can say that music and architecture are sisters. They are closely tied to one another and influence each other strongly. As stated above, they are both connected to rhythm and dynamics.

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