Symphony Hall

Symphony Hall

McKim, Mead, and White, 1900

National Register of Historic Places

Henry Lee Higginson did more than build Boston Symphony Hall; he founded the orchestra and hired and paid all the musicians and conductors. In his youth he had studied music in Vienna, attending many concerts in the great halls of Europe. The Grosse Musikvereinssaal in Vienna and Leipzig’s Gewandhaus became the models for Boston’s hall. Higginson also insisted that a young assistant professor of physics at Harvard, Wallace Clement Sabine, be consulted on the acoustics. Sabine was one of the first to study acoustics in a quantitative way and was so sure of his scientific basis that he guaranteed the hall would be acoustically perfect. Fortunately, he was correct, and the result is a Stradivarius among concert halls.

Like the Gewandhaus, the interior concert hall space is basically a double cube. Plentiful high-relief ceiling ornament, elaborate grills fronting the balconies, wall niches with statuary, and 2,631 hard seats resting on resilient wood flooring provide the resonance and reflectivity needed for a rich, sonorous hall. The green leather surface on the seats turned black after decades of use, and many were replaced with synthetic leather. The fan windows, which originally gave natural light, were blocked up during World War II and remain covered. The shallow balconies prevent any acoustically dead spots. Centered above the proscenium of the orchestra stage, a cartouche bears the name of Beethoven, whose Missa Solemnis inaugurated the hall. Monograms on the staircases represent the intended name, Boston Music Hall, a tribute to the performance site for most concerts in the nineteenth century.

McKim’s design in the Italian Renaissance style is restrained. All flourishes are within the concert space. The statuary adorning the interior of the hall was intended to be repeated on the roofline, but McKim’s elaborate façade flourishes were cut for budgetary reasons.

Bostonians cherish their symphony. Friday afternoon subscriptions have been handed down from generation to generation, so many of the best seats have been in the same families for fifty years or more. But Higginson set aside the excellent second balcony seats for those who could not afford subscriptions, selling them at 25 cents just before the concert. Thus was born the concept of “rush seats.”

The Massachusetts Historical Society and Symphony Hall led the move to Boston’s new Fenway cultural center at the close of the nineteenth century. The Horticultural Society, New England Conservatory, and Jordan Hall immediately followed. Isabella Stewart Gardner built her palace there and, last of all, came the Museum of Fine Arts from Copley Square.