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Finding Beauty in Historical Ruins

All week long, we’re celebrating KUSC Great Outdoors Week with a series of blogs focusing on the behind-the-music stories of composers and the inspiration they found in the natural world. Check back all week as we publish new stories designed to match each day’s music.

The human fascination with ruined, ancient, decaying sites is not lost on me. I’m not sure if it’s the idea that I’m looking at something that was built by the hands of people that lived hundreds or thousands of years before I was a glimmer in someone’s eye. Or that the walls around me have housed so much history that I am begging for them to tell me their stories. I want to know the people that have walked their halls, the songs they sang, the way they dressed, the language they spoke. It sparks the imagination as to what life would have been like in Ancient Greece, in the time of the Pharaohs, or during the reign of Elizabeth I. It may be a bit before we’re able to see such ruins in person, but their ineffable spirit can be found in several pieces of classical music.

The Scottish Symphony

For most composers, that spark of imagination led to musical inspiration. One of the most famous examples comes from when Felix was traveling all around Europe with a friend. When visiting Great Britain, he took a walking tour of the Scottish countryside and visited Holyrood Palace, which was home to Mary Queen of Scots. In the chapel, he was overcome by a sense of wonder as he took in the ivy that had overtaken the altar where Mary was crowned queen and looked up through the long ago decayed roof to the sky.

This led him to write his Third Symphony, the “Scottish” Symphony, in honor of his time there. Another product of the tour of Scotland was his Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal’s Cave, a place known for its naturally vibrant acoustics.

The Seven Wonders Suite

Speaking of Scotland, the most famous work from Scottish composer and pianist Stuart Mitchell is The Seven Wonders Suite, with each movement based on one of the great wonders of the ancient world. Its cinematic-like texture, featuring orchestra and choir, evokes those great structures found in Egypt, Ancient Greece, and the Middle East. Here’s “The Museum at Halicarnassus” from the suite:


Ancient Egypt has been the setting for many movies, television shows, and stage productions. Premiering in 1984, Philip Glass’s epic three-act opera Akhenaten is based on the life of one the most legendary pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. For the libretto, Glass used Akhenaten’s own poetry, as well excerpts from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and documents from the time of the pharaoh’s reign. The closing of the opera takes place in the ruins of Amarna, one of the ancient capital cities of Egypt, as a guide describes the scene to a group of tourists. Enjoy “The Window of Appearances” from Act I:

The “Ovid” Symphonies of Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf

79 A.D. saw the destruction of Pompeii, one of many prosperous cities of the Roman Empire. In a matter of hours, neighboring Mount Vesuvius rained down ash and fire, burying the city as it stood, preserved in time. When it was unearthed in 1748 by Spanish engineers, it captured the imagination of Austrian composer Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. He began to dig into the stories of Roman antiquity, coming upon Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid. Dittersdorf’s plan was to compose 15 symphonies based on Ovid’s work. He only made it to 12 symphonies and of those 12, only six have survived to this day. Below is the fourth:

The compositions of Domenico Zipoli

During the final years of his life, Italian composer Domenico Zipoli lived in South America as a Jesuit missionary. His music has largely vanished in Europe but has survived in many South American countries like Bolivia and Paraguay. The scores have become ruins unto themselves, having been stored in unfriendly climates in small town churches. Zipoli himself worked in many of these now decaying mission churches, working to spread Western religion and the Baroque music of the time. Most of the music disappeared after the Jesuits left, but when a ruined mission church in Bolivia was being restored in the 1970’s, over 5,000 pages of 17th and 18th century compositions from European and indigenous composers were found. Get a taste with the first three movements of the Messe de San Ignacio:

Do you have a favorite work inspired by or related to a ruined site? Let us know in the comments below!

Written by:
Jennifer Miller Hammel
Jennifer Miller Hammel
Published on 04.26.2020