The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: The Ear solves a musical mystery at Frank Lloyd’s Wright’s home and studio Taliesin | June 26, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

So there I was — all these photos are mine from being on the spot — attending a concert last Sunday evening by the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society in the historic Hillside Theater at famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Wright was given to decorating his walls with words (in that clear architect’s block-print lettering) and other calligraphic or visual ornaments.

So right above a stage door (behind the foot of the piano in the photo below top), the audience could see notes painted brown on brown from a musical score (below bottom).

Right around the corner of the wall was an extended quote about wisdom by Walt Whitman, a favorite poet of Wright.

But, since it was not credited, no one seemed to know for sure what piece of music the excerpt came from.

Even Carolina Hamblen, the coordinator of arts and culture at Taliesin, said she couldn’t say what it was. (She is pictured below in my photo in the middle, standing between BDDS flutist Stephanie Jutt, on the left, and BDDS executive director Samantha Crownover.)

I thought I knew the answer and said so to my concert companion.

But I wanted to be sure. So I took a picture, then waited until I came home to blow up the picture, print it out and play it on my piano.

And voila — I found out my first impression was right.

My first thought, seeing the inscription, had been: It must either be a piano work or a piano reduction of a score for some other instruments or orchestra. Knowing Wright’s like of authenticity, I figured the first was much more likely.

Then I saw the signature and the key marking with B, E and A flats.

And I saw the big chords at the beginning.

I also knew that Wright was especially fond of Beethoven.

So at first my educated guess what that it came from Beethoven’s famous “Pathetique” Piano Sonata in C Minor, Op. 13. It is one of Beethoven’s earliest “Romantic” works. And it seems a fitting choice for Wright, both in its pathos and its drama as well as its sublime beauty.

One could also add that it seems apt for Wright, given its status as a transition between Classical and Romanticism in music, much as Wright’s buildings are a modernist keystone or bridge between older traditional architecture and more contemporary styles of building.

And when I played it, I found my initial hunch was right.

But it is not the familiar opening of the sonata.

Coming before the development section, it is a bridge, a recapitulation of the famous opening with its loud, dark, big minor chords and dotted rhythms.

I can be specific: It occurs in measures 133-136 in my edition (an old Universal edition.)

So there it is: Mystery solved. Now The Notes on the Taliesin Wall can enter the archives at the landmark arts compound.

And tour guides can tell visitors what it is. Maybe they can even find a passage in Wright’s work about that particular piano sonata of Beethoven and what “Mr. Wright” liked about it.

The “Pathetique” might also be a good choice, then, for UW pianist Christopher Taylor to perform during an upcoming benefit at Taliesin. It would be both popular and appropriate.

Judge for yourself via this recording of the first movement performed by Vladimir Horowitz. And be sure to listen for the Notes on the Wall:

Do any of you know more about Wright and Beethoven or his taste for classical music in general?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. Mr. Stockinger,
    I have come upon this post conducting research on the influence of Beethoven’s music upon Frank Lloyd Wright’s work and mentioned it to musicologist David Patterson who is doing some ground-breaking work on the subject. He steered me down the path of comparing the organicism of Beethoven and Wright, which I am following. This leads me to my question for you: Is the passage at Taliesin representative in some way of Beethoven’s organicism in the Pathetique sonata? If so, how?

    Comment by Jason Mosher — October 11, 2016 @ 1:29 pm

  2. Dear Jacob,
    Thank you for your analysis. It took us years, in the Taliesin tour program (which is not part of the FLLW Foundation, whom you met during BDDS), to uncover what took you a moment: that the Beethoven passage is from the Pathetique. Wright did write a lot about music in his autobiography, and wrote this specifically about that piece of music:

    “When I was a small child I used to lie awake listening to the strains of the Sonata Pathetique—Father playing it on the Steinway square downstairs in the Baptist minister’s house at Weymouth. It takes me back to boyhood again when I hear it now.” [This was from the 1943 edition of _An Autobiography_, by FLLW. It can be found in the book, _FLLW: Collected Writings_, v. 4, p. 147.]

    By the way, the woman in the middle of the photograph with Stephanie Jutt and Samantha Crownover is actually Effi Casey, a longtime member of the Taliesin Fellowship, a resident of the Taliesin estate during the summer, and the music director for the group. Her niece is Caroline Hamblen.

    Comment by Mary Keiran Murphy — August 20, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

    • Hi Mary,
      Thanks for reading and replying, and for your kind words and for the correction in identification.
      I am especially grateful for the “proof” from Wright’s own writings.

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 20, 2010 @ 6:14 pm

      • Jake,
        You’re very welcome. I’m glad that I could provide the quote from Wright.

        Comment by Mary Keiran Murphy — August 24, 2010 @ 9:58 am

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