In a city filled with incredible architectural masterpieces from Gaudi, there is another architect who often gets forgotten. And yet he is perhaps just as influential in terms of founding the Catalan art form of 'modernism'. His name is Lluís Domènech i Montaner and one of his best designs is the Palau de la Música Catalana. The Catalan style of architecture called 'modernism' was developed to support a new Catalan identity. The Palau de la Música Catalana was built in 1905 for the Orfeó Català (Catalan Choral Society). It was this choral society that was also a leading force in the Catalan cultural movement. The Palau de la Musica Catalana is such an important piece of the history of modernism, and a symbol of Catalan nationalist pride, that it was made a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1997.
Catalan 'modernism' was a movement in art and literature that began at the turn of the 20th century. It was a movement that focused around Catalonia separating itself from the rest of Spain, and this separation began with art and literature.. Although Catalonia is part of the Spanish nation, they have customs and languages which are entirely unique to the rest of the of Spain. Moderisme rejected bourgeois values and adopted a bohemian attitude. Many people named the Café Castell dels tres Dragons by Lluís Domènech i Montaner as the first piece design in the modernism style. In other parts of Europe, Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement were also on the rise which share similar characteristics with modernism. They all have historically-derived elements, and all passionately use organic-themes, lavish decorations and have a strong sense of asymmetry and unbalance. Their shapes are more free, less restrained and the idea of exploration and imagination are of the utmost importance. This was like Catalan’s Renaissance which they coined the ‘Renaixença’ or ‘rebirth’.
To make your way to the Palau, take the Metro on the Yellow Line (L4) to Urquinaona station. It's located just nearby the Gothic Quarter so it is easily combined with the Gothic Quarter Walking Tour. Unlike many of Gaudi’s designs, the Palau is tucked away and not on display. You need to discover it for yourself by making your way down these narrow alleyways, away from the main streets.
There are two ways to visit the Palau de la Musica. One of the best ways to see the concert hall as it was meant to be enjoyed is to attend a show or production. Every year the building hosts half a million audience members who'll come to see over 300 different performances. Seeing a concert here is a unique and powerful experience but understandably the cost might be prohibitive for some travellers, or you just might not be interested in any of the types of performances. The other way to see the concert hall is by booking a guided tour. This guided tour will give you the chance to learn all about the architecture, the artists and the history of the building. The guided tour also gives you access to some parts of the buildings which aren't accessible during the regular performances. It is advisable to buy tickets for these guided tours in advance since often during peak tourist months they are difficult to come by and you want to ensure you are able to book a tour in your preferred language. A regular guided tour ticket costs €20 and a ticket which includes a piano recital costs €25 (if you have the option this is the one I’d recommend). If you want to save some money you can purchase as ‘Self Guided Tour Ticket’ for €15 a new options as of 2019. If you choose this option you can use this blog as your little helper to understand all the different aspects of this incredible work of art. The guided or self-guided tour option lasts just under an hour.
The Palau de la Música is located along a narrow street in the Gothic Quarter. The location of the building is almost claustrophobic, so tightly packed in between the others on the street. But the ingenious designs which Montaner came up with seem to battle this claustrophobic feeling with colour and levity. The exposed red brick exterior is opened up with dozens of arches and columns set along the facade, an element inspired by Arabic architecture. The columns are decored in intricate mosaics which draws your eye up to the roofline. Stained glass windows are used to bring in the natural light from all corners of the building to ensure that all throughout the day there always natural light flowing inside. All of this gives the building a breathy and light quality.
On the south side of the building, at the top of the facade, is an opulent mosaic, made by artist Lluís Bru which represents the members of the Orfeó Català dressed in an allegorical scene. The piece is hard to see from the street and for some reason that makes it all the more special. It feels like something which was meant more for the creator than for the viewer and discovering it is like finding a secret just aching to be found out.
On the southeast corner of the Palau de la Música, you’ll find an awe-inspiring sculpture which seems to soar off the side of the building. This creation was made by sculptor Miquel Blay which he named ‘La cançó popular Catalana’ (the favourite Catalan song). The sculpture takes on a similar shape as the carved figureheads on the bow of a ship. A beautiful woman is the central figure of the sculpture which the other characters surround. The woman, who represents songs, is accompanied by men and women representing Catalan music and art. Atop all the figures is Saint George, the Patron Saint of Catalonia, there to protect them all. Symbols of Saint George can be found throughout the building, like hidden Easter eggs around every corner.
Above various columns on the side of the building are busts of prominent figures from the history of music. You can see the heads of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Richard Wagner all peaking out across the facade.
Taking your eyes from up high, back down to street level, try to see if you can spot the old ticket box along one of the pillars near the entrance. The old ticket box is surrounded in lovely floral mosaics, blooming all around.
The new entrance to the Palau de la Música is through Palau Square. This square is an outdoor space which faces the new glass-walled exterior. The glass wall, which makes the entirety of the interior visible to the public on the other side was made by architect Òscar Tusquets. The original architect's vision for this building was one of glass and light and it seems fitting that Tusquets's renovations continued this theme. These days the square not only offers locals a place to relax on the staggered steps but is also where the Palau’s cafe and bar spill out on sunny days. In the summer, there are grandstands which are brought out to accommodate musical performances and festivals. This makes the Palau feel like more than just a place to see ticketed event but as a place for the community to meet.
Upon entering the building you'll step right into the Cafe Foyer. If you’re on a super tight budget and can’t afford to attend a performance or guided tour, you can visit the foyer for free. Inside the Cafe Foyer, you’ll be able to see a surprising amount of the imaginative architecture and stunning ornamentation which continues throughout the rest of the space. The foyer feels so warm and inviting. The wide arches are complete with beautiful red bricks and emerald green tiles as the curve towards the rose decorated ceiling.
At the cafe, you can enjoy Basque-style tapas and Catalan drinks at reasonable prices. Take a seat inside an soak in the ambience if you don’t have a chance to tour the rest of the interior. The bar itself is a work of art. Brilliant stain glass panels in the shape of blooming flower are suspended between the large brick column with their own budding roses.
Take a walk around the foyer. Darling geometric pieces of stained glasses surrounds ornate columns and powerfully carved archways. Each one with a strong focus on the natural environment. Modernism was all about bringing the outside into the interior, making you feel as though you are always surrounded by mother nature.
Lluís Millet Grand Staircase
To being your guided your, you’ll be ushed into the Lluís Millet Grand Staircase. If you’re here during a concert, don’t rush up to your seats and instead take a moment to study this entryway. As you walk up the stairs, look up the dazzling ceramic glazed ceiling. The tiles are so shiny they appear to shine like the stars.
The staircase is made of exquisitely carved marble, which also shimmers in the light of day. Huge street lamp are affixed on either side of the stairs. On the ceiling above the stairs you can study the pale blue painted roof which is adorned with golden ceramic roses, shaped into the pattern of a giant star.
Lluís Millet Hall
At the top of the stairs you’ll enter the Lluís Millet Hal.. You might be wondeirng, who is this Lluís Millet that all these rooms are being named after. Lluís Millet was a famous Catalan composerwho helped found the Orfeó Català. This hallway is also called the intermission hall since it’s where guests will retire during breaks in the performances. The most impressive parts of this room is the huge spread of stinaed glass windows which face our onto the blacony. The floweers whichi bloom at the bottom of the panels open up into clear glass panes so you can see the increible moscias coluns along the blacony and also allows for more light to pour into this room. Throughout the room there are also various bronze busts of important contirubutors to the Palau. While you might not recognize their names its so lovely to see their faces still looking out at the incredible work of art they helped contriubute to.
Lluís Millet Balcony
Standing out on the Lluís Millet Balcony is one of the best parts of the tour. The balony feel like stepping out into a rainbow garden. The colonnades here are each covered entirely with multicolored glazed tiles in a variety of floral desings. At the top of the columns are some incredible blooming flowers exploouding out of the carved granite. Getting up close and personal to the moasiacs you can really apprceiate the artisty the craftsmans put into the colouring of these tiles. They are so vibrant despite their locaton outdoors for over a hundred yeears.
The concert hall is the piece-de-resistance of the entire Palau de la Música Catalana. As soon as you walk in your eye is going to be drawn in a thousand different directions. While the dazzling stained glass skylight might be the brightest thing in the entire room, try to take in the whole room as one piece at first. You’ll notice that from afar, the entire place looks like it was hewn out of a rocky mountain and not built in the centre of a city. The organic impression of the room helps continue to impress on the viewer the theme of naturalism which is so important to Catalan Modernism. While the hall might feel entirely natural and almost like it was created at random, many aspects of the theatre were actually thoughtfully designed to ensure the music sounded as pure and full as possible inside the concert hall. The concert hall features about 2,200 seats, spread out over 3 floors, but despite the large size, the room still manages to feel warm and cosy due to all the natural light which flows in from all sides.
This is the only auditorium in Europe be illuminated entirely natural light during the daytime! Artificial light, while necessary during the evening, does affect how the room feels. The walls of the concert hall on either side consist entirely of stained glass panels set beneath fantastic arches. The vaults between the arches and pillars are covered in stunning tile work. In the centre of each of the vault are a bunch of laurel wreaths with the names of famous musicians set inside, essentially crowning them with this distinguished honour.
While natural lighting might have been Domènech i Montaner's preferred means of illuminating space when it came to creating artificial light he took the job very seriously. The chandeliers are made of many different shaped bulbs in a variety of different colours. They look like stars or constellations spread out across the starry night.
Along the right upper balcony, you can make out the flag of Saint George embedded on into the stained glass. Another one of those little details which is worth noting.
The centrepiece of this room is an incredible stained glass ceiling. It is completely breathtaking. Unlike some skylights, this one is an inverted dome, so it feels as though the ceiling in curling in towards the audience below. It was designed by Antoni Rigalt whose mastery of stained glass is unmatched. The centre of the dome is a luminous geometric sun in a variety of warm hues. Surrounding the sun is a chorus of angels set against a tightly patterned sky.
Depending on the time or weather during your visit, the light which pours in through the skylight is changeable. Sometimes it appears more green, and sometimes it seems bluer. Much like the real sky which is never merely one distinct colour, this shifting quality of these windows is almost magical.
The Stage Muses
18 depictions of women, clad in gorgeous textiles are spread out across the stage wall. While their bodies are designed within the mosaic their faces jut out from the wall into three-dimensional sculptures. Each of the women carry in their hand an instrument of folk music. These are traditional instruments such as harps and castanets. The women are also representatives of the nine Greek muses of the arts. The lower portion of the bodies made of mosaics was created by Lluís Bru while the upper sculptural part was made by Eusebi Arnau. In the centre of the stage, is a large mosaic featuring the coat of arms of Catalonia.
The Doric Column Scenes
Flanking either side of the stage and creeping up the three storey-tall Doric columns are another set of stupendous sculptures. On the left side, we see a group of women clustered together, these women are in the middle of singing the famous Catalan song Les Flores de Maig (The Flowers of May). Above the women is a bust of Catalan composer Josep Anselm Clavé. Clavé was instrumental (pardon the pun) in reviving Catalan folk songs. Clavé is nestled under the shade of a large stone tree whose leaves seem eternally just about to fall to the ground. Looking up from this angle also gives you a view of the remarkable ceramic roses which are littered across the ceiling as well as floral mosaics which are also found on the underside of the balconies. These little details are some of the things which make this building so incredible.
On the right side of the columns, we see the stern face and unruly hair of the illustrious composer and musician, Beethoven. Atop Beethoven himself are a fury of horses running along with the ceiling in a mighty stampede. They are charging so fast in fact that they have created this voluminous gust of wind around them. Riding atop these horses are a set of attractive Valkeries. The Valkyries are from Wagner's opera ‘Die Walküre’, one of the most influences and powerful operatic songs in the history of music.
In addition to the horses ridden by the Valkeries, are the flying Pegasus’ who leap downwards towards the audience. These can be found on the upper balconies and if you have seats up here, you can actually get quite close to these sculptures and study every detail of their surging forms.
Route of the Flowers
Throughout the tour, you may have noticed the repetition of roses either in the textiles, stone, ceramics or embedded in stained glass windows. The Palau de la Música Catalana has more than 2,000 roses spread across the building. The rose is the symbol of Saint George who is the patron saint of Catalonia and as such the symbol of the rose is of great importance to the nation and in this building which served as a symbol of national pride.
The Grand Organ
If you’re here on tour, you’ll be treated to a performance by a local musician who’ll come in to play the magnificent organ. This is your chance to hear just how intense the sound from this amazing instrument really is. The organ was built custom for space in 1906 by prestigious German firm Walcker in Ludwigsburg. In 1973 parts of the organ were replaced as the instrument was electrified but the organ shop ensured the sound remained as full as the previous version.
Getting to hear some Catalan songs being played through this magnificent instrument was definitely a moment I’ll never forget, and some of the songs brought a tear to my eye. It somehow made the entire place come alive, and for a moment I thought I could see those Valkeries singing along as they flew across the ceiling.
This building is truly one of the most spectacular visions of Catalan Modernism and if you have the chance to visit it in person, don't hesitate to make the journey to find this breathtaking vision of mother nature come to life through tiles, stone and glass.