Built between 1905 and 1908 as a home for Barcelona’s influential choral society the Orfeo Catala, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palau de la Musica Catalana is a gorgeous and elaborate work of Art Nouveau in brick, steel, glass and tiles. It was designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner – despite what Barcelona’s tourist information would have you believe, not every building of note in the city was masterminded by Antoni Gaudi – and its construction was partly funded by the city’s industrialists.
Yes, it’s a great irony that the flowery, swirling dreaminess of Art Nouveau was meant to give its admirers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries an aesthetic escape from urban life and from its landscapes of factories, slums, smog and dirt. Yet the people financing Art Nouveau were often the factory owners and businessmen who’d made all their money from the industries that’d created those grim urban landscapes.
The centrepiece of the Palau is its concert hall, which seats 2,200 and is supposedly the only such hall in Europe that during daytime is illuminated only by sunlight and not by artificial lighting. This is thanks to the huge inverted dome of decorative, mostly blue glass that dips from the centre of its ceiling. Adorning the sides of the hall, meanwhile, are 18 female figures who are supposed to represent the muses of Greek mythology, a bust of the Catalonian choir director Anselm Clave who was instrumental in reviving his community’s folk songs, a bust of Beethoven, and a depiction of the Valkyries from Wagner’s celebrated opera. The guide showing us around the building explained that Clave was chosen as part of the decor because he symbolised ‘old’ music, Beethoven was chosen because he symbolised ‘classical’ music, and Wagner’s opera was chosen because in 1908 Wagner was seen as the embodiment of ‘new’ music.
Wagner – a representative of modern music? Well, he did invent heavy metal, I suppose.