Not strictly within the borders of La Ribera but north of the Calle Princesa in the La Pere district, the Palau de la Música is, for many, the most outstanding contribution of the moderniste movement. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, it was designed by Lluis Domènech i Montaner, a contemporary of Gaudí's also responsible for the magnificent Hospital Sant Pau.
In 1891 it was decided that the Orfeó Català (Catalan Choral Society) needed a permanent home. The Orfeó was a key player in La Renaixença, a heady political and cultural climate of renewed Catalan nationalism and artistic endeavor (with the two closely intertwined). The Orfeó, which still regularly performs at the Palau, had been touring Catalan rural areas, performing catalanismo-charged folk songs to much acclaim. The general opinion was that they deserved their own "Palace of Music." Domènech i Montaner obliged.
A riot of symbolism, the Palau de la Música Catalana, constructed between 1905 and 1908, is a feast for the senses. The facade features a rippling sculpture representing popular Catalan song and is crowned by an allegorical mosaic of the Orfeó underneath, which displays busts of composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and the period's most popular composer, Wagner. The foyer, or vestibule, is linked to the street by an arcade and features dazzling columns of mosaic. It is the first-floor auditorium, however, where the excesses of modernisme run wild. Using the finest craftsmen of the day, Domènech i Montaner ordered almost every surface to be embellished with the most extraordinary detail. The ceiling features a stained-glass inverted dome with the auditorium's main light source, surrounded by 40 female heads, representing a choir. On the stage's rear wall are the Muses del Palau, a series of dainty, instrument-bearing maidens in terracotta and trencadis (broken mosaic collage). The pièce de résistance is the masterpiece proscenium that frames the stages. Executed by Pau Gargallo, on the left it features the Orfeó's director Josep Clavé bursting forth from the "Flowers of May," a tree representing a popular Catalan folk song. On the opposite side Beethoven peeks through a stampede of Wagner's Valkyries.
In 2003 local architect Oscar Tusquets completed his sensitive extension of El Palau, providing extra rehearsal space, a library, and another underground auditorium. It is worth checking their program when in town; concerts range from international orchestras and soloists to jazz and sometimes world music. Tickets for local acts are often very reasonably priced. If not, there are daily tours of the building. Advance purchase for these is recommended.