Music in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Houses

Piano, Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Arizona(Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sminor/)
Piano, Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Arizona(Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sminor/)

The Common Pattern series will present chamber music concerts between February and September 2010 in five Wright-designed houses around Wright’s Chicago and southwestern Wisconsin stomping grounds, and a sixth concert in a house designed by Wright’s mentor, the celebrated Chicago architect Louis Sullivan.

Though Wright was eerily destined to become an architect (the stories of his mother lining the walls of his nursery with pictures of cathedrals and other grand architectural structures and giving him Froebel blocks to finger as as youth are legendary), a musical soundtrack always accompanied his life.

There’s a famous story about Wright’s father, a Unitarian preacher, playing Bach on the organ at church and making the young Wright pump the organ pedals. Wright learned how to play the piano and somewhat later in his younger years wrote of taking solace in Beethoven‘s music when he and his father (who eventually left the family) butted heads.

As an adult, Wright’s motto was “take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves,” and Wright always had at least one nice piano on hand, whether or not he could actually afford to pay for it.

Taliesin

One of my favorite photographs from Wright’s life is of the desert tent he designed for himself when he and an entourage of apprentices ventured from his Wisconsin home and studio, Taliesin, to Arizona to begin work on a project. The photo shows the interior of the tent, made of translucent unbleached canvas panels joined at odd angles to wooden planks.  There’s a modest single bed and, in the far corner, a baby grand piano bedecked with music books.

Wright reported that desert pack rats once made off with virtually the whole camp, and it’s likely the rats couldn’t make off with the piano, though interesting to imagine them taking the thing apart in bits and pieces. But the instrument was certainly a luxury for a desert camp – but nonetheless a luxury Wright evidently couldn’t live without.

Weltzheimer-Johnson House

Both Taliesin, in Wisconsin, and Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona, still have pianos. And there’s a somewhat famous Frank Lloyd Wright piano right here in Ohio, at Oberlin’s Weltzheimer-Johnson House. Wright even drew a baby grand piano into the floor-plan of the ranch-style house.

The piano in this house, which was once owned by Oberlin art history professor Ellen Johnson, was made famous in a poem by the composer John Cage  that contains an acrostic of the owner’s first name.  That Cage evidently was at the house at a time when it did not contain a piano is a conundrum we won’t get into here:

you wEre right
not to incLude
the detaiL
of thE
piaNo

housE
itseLf
is musicaL:
sound of thE
wiNd

Glore House

The Common Pattern concert series begins February 14 with performances by baritone Ben Copeland and pianist Sebastian Huydts at the Glore House in Lake Forest, Illinois.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Field Guide says the this house is one of the few Wright-designed houses with a full two-story living room – a feature that bodes well for the acoustics.  (I believe the Louis Penfield  House near Cleveland is based on a similar design. That house is one of a small number of Wright’s houses that can be rented, so if you’re reading this in Ohio and can fairly easily float up to Cleveland, make your reservations now!)

Robert M. Lamp House

Boding perhaps less well acoustically, though of at least equal architectural intrigue, the Robert M. Lamp House (Madison, Wisconsin) is the venue of the next concert.

Lamp was a childhood friend of Wright’s, and the house Wright designed for him was built in 1903, when Wright was in his late-30s, and many years after he had dropped out of the university of Wisconsin to head to Chicago and talk his way into a job with Adler and Sullivan.

In fact, by the time the Lamp House was under construction, Wright had already been fired from Adler and Sullivan for taking freelance design gigs on the side and had started his own studio (and the family he would eventually leave) in Oak Park, Illinois. From the house one can see both Lake Mendota and Lake Monona.

Irish harpist Chelcy Bowes will perform on this concert, in observance of St. Patrick’s Day, and listeners will have a chance to enjoy some brew – I mean, the view.

Avery Coonley House

From the Lamp House The Common Pattern series moves to Riverside, Illinois, and the Avery Coonley House. There the Highland Park String Trio will perform (April 18), and the current owners of the house will lead audience members on a tour.

Gilmore House

On June 20, the Madison-based Shumi String Quartet performs in Madison’s Gilmore House. The Frank Lloyd Wright Field Guide states that Eugene Gilmore had been a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin, and at one point was appointed by Warren G. Harding (an Ohio president whose “front porch campaign” was as savvy a political gimmick as there’s ever been, and whose actual front porch, in Marion, is a stone’s throw away from most of us in Central Ohio) as Vice-Governor of the Philippines.

The Gilmore family lived in this house only one year.  Later, the house was occupied by (gulp) a fraternity and is now again a private residence.

Bradley House

July 18 brings a country music concert and lecture at the Bradley House, in Madison, Wisconsin. The design of this house is credited to Wright’s mentor Louis Sullivan, but is believed also to have been heavily influenced by George Grant Elmslie, who worked with Sullivan before before establishing himself in Minneapolis in the early 1900s.

Bill Malone and his band are the featured performers. Malone also will give a talk about county music.

A Concert in Talieson

The Common Pattern series brings it all home for its final concert, September 19, at Wright’s beloved Wisconsin home, Taliesin. University of Wisconsin – Madison faculty members flutist Stephanie Jutt and pianist Christopher Taylor will perform in one of Wright’s masterpieces, a structure that, despite countless fires large and small and a notorious massacre, lives on.

Wright sited the house atop the tallest hill overlooking the valley that had for generations been home to Wright’s maternal ancestors, the Lloyd Jones family. All manner of Wrightiana still exists within walking distance of Taliesin: the Hillside School his aunts created (which now houses the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture), the family chapel to which the young Wright himself contributed some design elements, and the Romeo and Juliet tower.

Walking around the valley, you get the feeling Wright is lurking over the next hill, just waiting to tell you how to “read” this land he always returned to. The sound of music may well make Taliesin feel even more like the days when Wright was there.

If you’re traveling in the Midwest over the next year, keep these concerts and venues in mind. I know I will.

Comments
  • Kevin B.

    Jennifer-

    Thanks for the nicely written article. I just wanted to make a correction for your readers about the event on July 18. While it will take place at a home called the Bradley Residence, it is in fact the Bradley Residence in Madison, WI, designed by Louis Sullivan, not the Bradley Residence in Kankakee, IL designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Easy to confuse the two, but I thought you might appreciate the correction.
    Thanks, and here is a link to the series brochure with all of the details. Hope this is helpful.

    http://www.prairiemod.com/files/wrightconcertseries_readerfinal.pdf

    • http://www.wosu.org Jennifer Hambrick

      Thank you for catching this. I’ve updated the post, which now has correct information about SUllivan’s Bradley House.