Palau de la Música Catalan

The Palau de la Música Catalana is a concert hall in Barcelona, Spain. Designed in the Catalan modernista style by the architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner, it was built between 1905 and 1908 for the Orfeó Català, a choral society founded in 1891 that was a leading force in the Catalan cultural movement that came to be known as the Renaixença (Catalan Rebirth). It was inaugurated February 9, 1908.

The project was financed primarily by the society, but important financial contributions also were made by Barcelona's wealthy industrialists and bourgeoisie. The Palau won the architect an award from the Barcelona City Council in 1909, given to the best building built during the previous year. Between 1982 and 1989, the building underwent extensive restoration, remodeling, and extension under the direction of architects Oscar Tusquets and Carles Díaz. In 1997, the Palau de la Música Catalana was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with Hospital de Sant Pau. Today, more than half a million people a year attend musical performances in the Palau that range from symphonic and chamber music to jazz and Cançó (Catalan song).

The design of the Palau is typical of Catalan modernism in that curves predominate over straight lines, dynamic shapes are preferred over static forms, and rich decoration that emphasizes floral and other organic motifs is used extensively. In contrast to many other buildings built in the modernisme style, however, it must also be said that the design of the Palau is eminently rational. It pays strict attention to function and makes full use of the most up-to-date materials and technologies available at the beginning of the 20th century (e.g., steel framing). As Benton (1986, 58) has pointed out, "To eyes unaccustomed to the architecture of Barcelona, the impression of a riot of ornament lacking any logic or control seems overwhelming. And yet the building follows exactly the exhortations of the [architectural] rationalists. The structure, in brick and iron, is clearly expressed." Actually, its walls are the first example of curtain wall structures.

The wealthy citizens of Barcelona, who were becoming ever more sympathetic to the Renaixença at the time the Palau was built, asked its architect for building materials and techniques that symbolized the Catalan character. In response, he commissioned and gave great creative freedom to a variety of local artisans and craftsmen to produce the fabulous ornamentation, sculpture, and decorative structural elements for which the Palau is famous.

The rich decoration of the façade of the Palau, which incorporates elements from many sources, including traditional Spanish and Arabic architecture, is successfully married with the building's structure. The exposed red brick and iron, the mosaics, the stained glass, and the glazed tiles were chosen and situated to give a feeling of openness and transparency. Even Miguel Blay's massive sculptural group symbolizing Catalan music on the corner of the building does not impede the view into or out from the interior. As Carandell and co-authors (2006, 20) have pointed out, in the Palau "the house as a defense and protected inner space has ceased to exist."

Two colonnades enjoy a commanding position on the second-level balcony of the main façade. Each column is covered uniquely with multicolored glazed tile pieces in mostly floral designs and is capped with a candelabrum that at night blazes with light. Above the columns are large busts of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Ludwig van Beethoven on the main façade and Richard Wagner on the side. The top of the main façade is graced by a large allegoric mosaic by Lluís Bru that represents the members of the Orfeó Català, but it is impossible to see it clearly from the narrow street below.

Originally, guests entered the Palau from the street through two arches supported by thick pillars that opened into the vestibule. The former ticket windows, which are located in the center pillar, are beautiful concentric arches adorned with floral mosaics of various materials created by Lluís Bru.

The ceiling of the vestibule is decorated with glazed ceramic moldings that are arranged in the shape of stars. From the vestibule, on the left and right, grand marble staircases ascend from between crowned lamps on columns to bring visitors to the second floor. The balustrades of the staircases, also marble, are supported by unusual transparent yellow glass balusters. The underside of the staircases is covered with tiles that form gleaming canopies on either side of the vestibule.

Today, guests generally enter the Palau through the foyer, which was created in the renovations of Tusquets and Díaz from what originally were the headquarters of the Orfeó Català. The large space of the foyer is more soberly decorated than the rest of the Palau, but the wide exposed brick arches with their marvelous glazed green, pink, and yellow ceramic flowers recapitulate the ornamentation of the rest of building. The foyer features a large counter where tapas and beverages can be served to concert-goers or visitors who are touring the building. The bar is situated between massive pillars of brick and is illuminated from behind by expansive stained-glass panes that are suspended above it. A glass case in the foyer displays the Orfeó Català's banner, which bears its crest embroidered on fabric in the modernisme style.

"The concert hall is one of the most beautiful in the world (...) without exaggeration. It is one of its most important architectural treasures. Its pace, simple, complex, mystical and paradoxical, defies accurate description" -David Mackay

The concert hall of the Palau, which seats about 2,200 people, is the only auditorium in Europe that is illuminated during daylight hours entirely by natural light. The walls on two sides consist primarily of stained-glass panes set in magnificent arches, and overhead is an enormous skylight of stained glass designed by Antoni Rigalt whose centerpiece is an inverted dome in shades of gold surrounded by blue that suggests the sun and the sky.

The architectural decoration in the concert hall is a masterpiece of creativity and imagination, yet everything has been carefully considered for its utility in the presentation of music. The hall is not a theater, because the massive sculptures flanking the stage make the use of scenery nearly impossible. Likewise, even though a noble pipe organ graces the apse-like area above and behind the stage, the hall is not a church.

The dominant theme in the sumptuous sculptural decor of the concert hall is choral music, something that might be expected in an auditorium commissioned by a choral society. A choir of young women surrounds the "sun" in the stained-glass skylight, and a bust of Anselm Clavé, a famous choir director who was instrumental in reviving Catalan folk songs, is situated on the left side of the stage, under a stone tree. Seated beneath this statue are sculpted girls singing the Catalan song Les Flors de Maig (The Flowers of May).

The whole arch over the front of the stage was sculpted by Dídac Masana and Pablo Gargallo. On the right side is depicted the ride of the valkyries in Wagner's opera Die Walküre (The Valkyries), an opera in which the female choir sings with great musical power. Under the valkyries and among two Doric columns—symbol of classical art—is a bust of Beethoven that many think was placed there in honor of the beautiful choral composition in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony known as the Ode to Joy. So, the arch represents folk music on the left and classical music on the right, both united at the top of the arch.

In a semicircle on the sides of the back of the stage are the figures of 18 young women popularly known as the muses (although there are only nine muses in Greek mythology). The monotone upper bodies of the women protrude from the wall and their lower bodies are depicted by colorful mosaics that form part of the wall. Each of the women is playing a different musical instrument, and each is wearing a different skirt, blouse, and headdress of elaborate design. In the early days of the Palau, many critics found these figures unsettling or even eerie, but today they are widely regarded as perhaps the best sculptural work in the concert hall. The upper bodies were sculpted by Eusebi Arnau, and the mosaic work of their lower bodies was created by Lluís Bru.

The sculptures of winged horses that enjoy a commanding position in the upper balcony are said to honor Pegasus, the horse of Greek mythology that is the symbol of high-flying imagination. Pegasus was ridden by the muses when called by their father Zeus to be by his side on Mount Olympus.