The A to Z of Carnegie Hall: A is for Acoustics
Welcome to a new summer series in which we reveal the the wonders of Carnegie Hall—the people, the music, and the history—from A through Z, one letter at a time.
Today ... the letter A.
A is for Acoustics
In his 2010 book The Acoustics of Performance Halls, J. Christopher Jaffe—a leader in architectural–acoustic design—calls Carnegie Hall "the acoustic crown jewel of American concert halls." This is something that artists and audiences have known about the "big hall" for more than a century. A favorite quote is from Isaac Stern, who said, "Everywhere in the world, music enhances a hall, with one exception—Carnegie Hall enhances the music." In her 1967 autobiography Too Strong for Fantasy, music critic (and daughter of soprano Alma Gluck) Marcia Davenport—referring to her favorite seat in the Second Tier—wrote, "Carnegie Hall is glorious, but nowhere else in the old house is the sonority so total, the instruments, together or individually, so brilliant and penetrating. The sound comes out of the walls and surrounds one like a cloak."
So, just how did Carnegie Hall end up with such astounding acoustics?
At Andrew Carnegie's request, Carnegie Hall’s architect William Burnet Tuthill (a gifted amateur cellist) toured and studied European concert halls famous for their acoustics. He also consulted with architect Dankmar Adler—of the Chicago firm Adler and Sullivan—a noted acoustical authority who was responsible for Chicago's recently completed Auditorium Building, itself known for superb acoustics.
Keeping It Simple
Tuthill deliberately chose to keep the styling and decorative elements simple, elegant, and functional, focusing his energies on designing an excellent acoustic environment. Drawing on his findings—and in some cases his own intuition—he strove for simplicity and eliminated common theatrical features like heavy curtains, frescoed walls, and chandeliers that could impair good sound distribution. Carnegie Hall's smooth interior, elliptical shape, slightly extended stage, and domed ceiling help project soft and loud tones alike to any location in the Hall with equal clarity and richness.
If It Ain't Broke
At various times over the decades, curtains, backdrops, and panels have been added to the stage area, affecting the sound. These have all been subsequently removed, and audiences today experience the sound of the Hall as Tuthill intended. All of this means that notes produced by even the softest striking of a piano key or the gentlest stroking of a violin bow across a string on stage can be heard with total clarity in the back row of the Balcony.