The Associació Obrera de Concerts was a cultural and social challenge closely linked to the Pablo Casals Orchestra. Historian and music teacher Tona Montserrat recounts the origins, evolution and pioneering significance of an adventure conceived to bring music to working-class people who until then had had no access to it.
In 1925, on the initiative of Pablo Casals, the Associació Obrera de Concerts (Workers’ Concert Association) was founded in the Catalan capital, an organisation made up solely of workers, to bring symphonic music to the humble people of the city and offer them a space for constructive enjoyment. The Obrera de Concerts, as it would soon become known, channelled the passion for music and culture of a significant proportion of Barcelona’s citizens, which they would have had to give up because of their social status, and even went on to reveal skills that, without the projection of this organisation, would never have flourished.
A little earlier, in 1919, when Casals returned to Barcelona, he found the same pitiful musical panorama that he had left twenty years earlier, when he left the country to consolidate his career as a concert performer: a lack of professional musicians and music schools, which, moreover, were designed only for the well-to-do. Now, however, the musician had a place to compare and knew that another reality was possible. On the strength of his prestige and convinced that music was a social good that had to be promoted, he set out to unify the two or three symphony orchestras that existed in the city and create one that would be representative of Barcelona, with musicians from the region, capable of premiering works and discovering new repertoires, as well as maintaining a stable and quality concert activity on a European level.
As explained in the previous section, the proposal aroused mistrust and suspicion on all sides. Nevertheless, Pablo Casals decided to create it on his own, an initiative that would take the form of the Orchestra Pau Casals (OPC), and he himself selected its members on the basis of both their musical abilities and their commitment to the project. A Board was to bear the orchestra’s financial burden, but until sufficient members were found, Casals covered all the expenses.
On 13th October 1920, the OPC made its debut at the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona. The orchestra was considered the first modern orchestra in the region, both for the way it functioned with regular, periodic rehearsals throughout the year, a stable and professional staff with a commitment to training, the programming of two seasons a year and the presence of soloists and guest conductors, and for the richness, boldness and coherence of its artistic repertoire. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of its foundation, this article will show to what extent the Obrera de Concerts may be considered as the social dimension of the orchestra. In order to do so, however, we will have to know some of its organisational details.
Europe had been left in tatters by the end of the First World War, a circumstance that Catalan industry was able to take advantage of. In Barcelona, the profits made from industrial activity were invested in construction (building was carried out in the Eixample and many working-class neighbourhoods, work began on the metro and, above all, on Montjuïc mountain, work was being done for the Universal Exhibition of 1929) and all this led to a great demand for labour. The Catalan capital doubled its population in a short space of time, but, due to a lack of planning, most of the new arrivals had to live in very harsh, even miserable conditions, which offered them little more than mere sustenance.
Pablo Casals was aware of the situation and also of how difficult, if not impossible, it was to listen to symphonic music without buying a ticket to a concert, especially when there was still no radio station in Barcelona. Therefore, whenever possible, the OPC offered morning concerts at reduced prices in different venues in the city. However, the maestro’s will went further, since he conceived music as a factor of social change. And there can be no change without involvement. Charity concerts brought satisfaction, but nothing new to society. In 1925, when the OPC was sufficiently solvent, Casals set a new social and cultural challenge:
“What I wanted was a specifically workers’ association, governed and administered by the very workers who would compose it. All too often, the workers remain on the fringes of musical life; I didn’t want this to happen in my country; I wanted the men and women who spend so many hours every day in factories, warehouses and offices to be able to participate in musical life too, and in such conditions that this participation would open up new horizons for them, enriching their spirit”.Josep M. Corredor, Converses amb Pau Casals(Conversations with Pablo Casals), Editorial Selecta, 1967.
The Associació Obrera de Concerts was founded on the basis of a verbal agreement with the OPC’s Board, under which the latter would make the orchestra available to the workers six times a year, coinciding with its usual spring and autumn seasons, in concerts on Sunday mornings. In exchange, the Obrera de Concerts would become affiliated to the Board as an institution, paying the corresponding fee, and would also cover the expenses arising from each concert, both the musicians’ fees and the publishing of programmes, hall expenses and the transport of instruments if necessary. The other major supporter of the project was the Ateneu Polytechnicum, a technical and cultural school created a year earlier with teachers and students from the Escola Industrial (Industrial School) repressed by the government of the dictator Primo de Rivera. The Ateneu gave the new organisation a space in its headquarters at Carrer de Sant Pere Més Alt 27, Barcelona, free of charge for the first year.
The Obrera de Concerts declared itself to be non-political, non-denominational and driven by a love of music and culture. Comprising only workers, the first 33 members were students at the Ateneu Polytechnicum, and the Board of Directors was chaired by Joan Font i Carbó, a mechanic by profession. Its aim was to offer symphonic music recitals to its members at the Palau de la Música Catalana, whose capacity (3,000 people) would mark the maximum number of members it could afford. The payment of a fee of 6 pesetas gave the right to attend all concerts, regardless of the type of seat. The Associació Obrera de Concerts was constituted as an entity independent of the Orchestra Pau Casals, not as its social branch, as it is sometimes understood.
The two entities were united by cooperation agreements and by the enlightening presence of Casals with his will to spread the culture, and that of so many collaborators who shared it. On 8th November 1925, at the Olympia Theatre in Barcelona, the Associació Obrera de Concerts was presented to the public with an exclusive concert by the OPC, conducted by its founder. Such was the success and the avalanche of applications received that the Board of Directors had to tighten the requirements for the admission of new members in order to give priority to those who needed it most.
The initiative operated until 1937, twelve years during which it offered its members 126 performances (72 of which were symphonic), all of them of the highest quality. In keeping with Pablo Casals’s criteria, the repertoire was always discerning, with no concessions to easy tastes that would made it more accessible to working-class audiences. Each concert, moreover, was accompanied by an extensive programme, similar to those published by the Board, with informative articles on the works, the composers and the soloists who performed. The association soon extended its field of action with the magazine Fruïcions, the organisation’s mouthpiece, a space for expression and debate for members, where they could read excellent articles, often written by writers from the Revista Musical Catalana. Shortly afterwards, a new series of six chamber music concerts was established to fill the waiting time between the two rounds of symphonic recitals and an annual concert by the Municipal Band. As many extraordinary concerts were also programmed as circumstances permitted. Later on, the Associació Obrera de Teatre (Workers’ Theatre Association) was also created, under the sponsorship of Adrià Gual; Els Cantors de l’Obrera (the Workers’ Singers), a mixed choir directed by the maestro Manuel Borgunyó; a library linked to the Ateneu Polytechnicum with a large number of scores and books on musical themes, and a music school for members and families, Els Estudis Musicals (The Musical Studies), directed and sponsored by the brilliant pianist and educator Blanca Selva from Occitania.
Among the internationally renowned conductors and performers who performed in front of the members of the Obrera, as well as Casals, there were Eduard Toldrà, Jaume Pahissa, Arnold Schönberg, Manuel de Falla, Joan and Ricard Lamote de Grignon, Enric Morera, Joan Manén, Ernesto Halffter, Louis Hasselmans, Conxita Badia, Alfred Cortot, Emil Cooper, Albert Wolff, Blai Net, Blanca Selva, Joan Massià, Jelly d’Aranyi, Fritz Busch, etc. However, the most desired project of the Associació Obrera de Concerts came in 1932, with the founding of its own symphony orchestra, the Institut Orquestral (Orchestral Institute), made up of members of the organisation and conducted by Maestro Joan Pich Santasusana. For two years, the orchestra worked with discretion and constancy, obtaining instruments and instrumentalists, preparing repertoire, rehearsing at night and increasing the musical and technical level of its musicians. Some musicians of the OPC collaborated disinterestedly, as did Pablo Casals and other members of the Board. Finally, on 6th May 1934, the Institut Orquestral made its debut at the Palau de Projeccions de Montjuïc in front of a packed auditorium and in the presence of numerous political and cultural personalities.
Soon, that new orchestra decided to leave the concert halls and set out to find its audience among those who, because of their circumstances, would never go to the Palau de la Música Catalana:
“This is our uneasiness. We need to see in our artistic manifestations brown faces and rustic hands that feel the thrill of an unknown emotion, accustomed to the darkness of their existence full of anguish (…).”
The Institut Orquestral created the so-called concert-meetings, a new educational and touring session concept. The organisation was left in the hands of the social agents where they were to play, thus involving all the parties concerned. The ensemble’s eighty musicians performed in factories, schools, soup kitchens, cinemas and barracks, in front of very large audiences, enthusiastic and appreciative to the highest degree. At this point, it makes sense to say that the Associació Obrera de Concerts was the social dimension of the OPC, both as an institution and because of the involvement of those who collaborated in the success of its mission, both children of workers and wealthy families. Suddenly, the coup d’état of 1936 and the ensuing war prevented the Obrera de Concerts from continuing its activity and it had to be dissolved. We will never know what initiatives it would have launched if it had continued, but we are sure that the legacy of the work lives on in the experiences and memories of the families who enjoyed, in the best conditions, a gift that circumstances denied them: symphonic music, performed by an excellent orchestra and in an exceptional auditorium. Somehow, we are convinced that the feat of the Associació Obrera de Concerts contributed to making our society a little more cultured and exquisite.
Article published in issue 59 of the 440 Magazine.