One of the most beautiful buildings in the world has to be the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona. Designed in an organic, modernist style by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, it was completed in 1908. The interior is as lyrical as the concerts performed inside…
The hall was host to an extraordinary series of concerts in 1936. The program for the International Society of Contemporary Music Festival included the debut of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. Dedicated to a 19-year-old girl who had died of polio (and who was the daughter of German architect Walter Gropius), the piece is atonal, but beautifully melancholy. It turned out to be Berg’s final work–in late 1935 Berg died after an insect sting became infected.
The April 1936 debut of the piece was to be directed by Berg’s good friend, the conductor and composer Anton Webern. But at the last minute, overcome with grief for his friend, Webern found himself unable to lead the performance and another conductor took his place.
In the audience that evening of April 19 was a young British composer, whose own work would be premiered a few days later. His name was Benjamin Britten, and his piece, for violin and piano, was one of the first publicly performed works by one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers.
In a letter home, Britten wrote that Berg’s violin concerto was “just shattering, very simple, & touching.” He made little mention of the political turmoil in Barcelona.
Three months later, a group of generals staged a coup against the elected leftist government of Spain. The country was plunged into a brutal civil war that would claim more than half a million lives. Barcelona, allied with the leftists, would suffer aerial bombardment, eventually falling to the fascists, who ruled Spain under Francisco Franco until 1975.
The Palau survived the war intact. In 1997 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Images by Elena Cavanna and Jiuguang Wang, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.