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The Music Building

By Maxwell E. Foster jr.

On September 28, 1914, in the middle of an article describing the completion of Larz Anderson Bridge and the installation of new plumbing in Weld Hall, this paper mentioned briefly that a "Music Building" had been put up during the summer. This unobtrusive edifice marked a large advance for the Music Department, which had been a sort of gypsy in the University, camping at one time in the chem labs and later on in the Bursar's office. Harvard had not been the world's most congenial patron for the art. Puritan distrust of music as a rootlet of evil lingered on throughout the 19th century: Francis Parkman was said to have ended his yearly budget report at the Corporation with "Musica Delenda Est." By 1914, however, most of this sinfulness seemed to have worn off, and music was looked on, at worst, as a useless frill.

The Music Building, at the time of its construction, was considered an ideal structure. Paine Hall, the second-floor auditorium, is one of the finest small concert halls in the country, thanks partly to an acoustical device known as a "bouncing wall." The "bounce" comes from certain parts of the side and back walls which are made of canvas with an air-space behind. The rest of the building originally contained a tiny music library, classrooms, and offices.

This concentration of musical activity was bound to create a conflict of noises, so the designers tried to sound-proof the rooms by using thick walls and installing double doors. Unfortunately, they put in a network of heating pipes which conveys the sound-proofed music to all parts of the building.

One of the Music department's most appreciative students was Arthur Conant, the building's janitor for many years. Conant, who on occasion was confused with the President, used to audit courses by listening outside the door. The Classical and Romantic composers were his favorites, and he knew them by heart; when the department instituted a course in medieval music, Conant complained bitterly about the lugubrious sounds.

The average student was unfortunately less receptive to music than was the janitor--it was still a novelty in the curriculum--and for a few years the Music Building was not too well attended. The Department even found it necessary to keep its introductory courses "sugar-coated" to attract customers. But an energetic faculty and a rising interest in music have changed all this. Prominent musicians, Wanda Landowska among others, came to give lectures and concerts in the auditorium; the Charles Eliot Norton Fund brought Stravinsky and, this year, Paul Hindemith, as visiting lecturers.

Since the war, particularly, the Music Building has been an extremely busy place. Several voluminous white-shoe courses from other departments use the auditorium. The cellar, which used to be storage space for overflow equipment from the neighboring physics labs, has been made over into piano practice rooms and cubicles with individual phonographs. Music seems to be a stimulus to other modes of expression: the walls of the listening rooms have all developed severe cases of pornographic murals. One need only hear the cellar in full session,--the notes from five different phonographs and as many pianos, all loud and sounding rather flat after seeping through the soundproofing--to be convinced that music has become a vital local art.

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