Music Made Visible – the Iconographic Programme of the Grand Hall

No deep knowledge of art history and interior decoration is needed to recognise that the concert halls of the 19th century and the turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau period were erected as shrines to the Greek god Apollo, while the theatres were offered as sanctuaries dedicated to Dionysus. In most buildings of the time the Antique deities were only alluded to by a few popular motifs: the designers were apparently content to depict a triumphal march of Dionysus, the juxtaposition of Apollo's lyres and swans, the march of the muses, or a laurel ornament. However, the Liszt Academy of Budapest, built between 1903 and 1907, reveals a much more complex architecture. Here, the rich and manifold decorations of the façades and the main halls, dominated by the motifs and symbols of Greek mythology, form a unified whole and – reaching beyond the Nietzschian opposition – are integrated into an elaborate iconographic programme. The highlight of this iconographic programme is undoubtedly the Grand Hall.

Photo: Liszt Academy / Judit Marjai


Given the organic unity of its iconographic system, the entire edifice is interwoven by a sub- and superordinating hierarchical structure based on architectural and decorative oppositions. As the horizontal side elements of the main façade are contrasted with a vertically divided avant-corps towering in the middle, so the three-storey-high Grand Hall emerges from the lower built lobby space. Similarly, the two sides of the façade are decorated with water-associated motifs, which is repeated in the foyer by the blue-coloured majolica plates, the globes with their sparkling water and bubble patterns, and the wave ornamentation of the cornice upstairs. The world that rises above the waters like an island belongs to Apollo: this is represented on the front façade by the Doric columns fashioned after the composition of the triumphal arches. In the Grand Hall, however, the effect of the constructed elements is only secondary. Here, the successive arches have the role of holding the symbolic vegetation which dominates the room: the laurel tree fills in and pervades the entire space from floor to ceiling, forming groves to shade the interior and casting dots of shadows onto the side walls. The laurel strikes its black roots on the ground floor, only to run its green trunks up the sidewalls, and finally cover the vault with its golden foliage. The Doric façade, featuring swans and lyres, represents the Temple of Apollo, and the deity is also endowed with the attributes of the Egyptian sun god (sun discs, obelisks, pyramidia, egyptianizing heads, pylons). The laurel grove is Apollo's holy sanctuary on the island – also reminiscent of his shrine on the island of Delos –, with swans, lyres, serpent-decorated altars and the double portrait of the deity himself. In Apollo's symbolic grove the most eminent place is occupied by the organ and the other musical allusions, among them the depictions of the swan song.

For all their contrasting values, the Apollonian and Dionysian worlds at times overlap, and this is represented in the architecture of the building by several inter-referring motifs, reflections and infiltrations: in the waterworld of the lobby we can at the same time discover lyres, snakes, and pyramidia; the sun discs are reflected on the wet surfaces to produce multiple images; and in the parts belonging to Apollo, the Dionysian scherzo also appears, as well as the moon's silver glint by the side of the sun's golden blaze. The passage between the different worlds is made possible by the mediators, who take their stand at the boundaries of the two realms. Such mediating figures are the muses guarding the ground floor entrances of the Grand Hall, and the founder Ferenc Liszt himself, who is sitting enthroned like a high priest between the lower and upper part of the central avant-corps of the façade, as if to affirm the Christian layer of meaning which is also embodied in the building's iconographic system. It is again mediators who play the main role in the fresco by Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch on the back wall of the upstairs foyer: female figures dancing on top of the fountain of art as personifications of the various arts. At the same height in the Grand Hall there are Apollonian herma pillar priestesses, standing on the side as caryatids and in the middle as light bearers. Also on this level we have the only mediator that can actually be sounded: the organ.

The two different worlds intermingle in the fresco as well, which makes the painting a crucial part of the iconographic programme: it allows for a certain transparency between the foyer and the Grand Hall so that the work of art becomes an integral part of both spaces. Celestial beings playing Dionysian instruments glorify the arts, the fountain of which is visited by pilgrims. Higher, sitting on the clouds there are angels who play the characteristic instruments of Apollo, and their music already sounds in another world hidden behind the purple drapes – a reference to the purple robe attributed to Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo.

The Grand Hall is a sacred place for ceremonies, and the ceremonies are the concerts themselves. The roles of priestesses are taken by the musicians, among whom the soloists can be regarded as the embodiments of Orpheus, that is, if we are to believe the motifs on their dressing room windows. Participation in the ritual acts are sanctioned by inscriptions – Favete lingvis and Sursum corda –, while Apollo's altars decorated with serpents affirm the sacred nature of the concerts. As we listen to the music, our souls, like the geniuses holding on to their lyres on the façade, rise into Apollonian heights where we can see the god's portraits, altars and descending angels, as well as the words Harmony, Beauty, Rhythm, Poetry, Melody and Imagination reflected in the celestial water beyond the vaulted sky – and actually written in the skylights. Meanwhile, the audience, tenderly hugged by Apollo, is turned into a laurel tree like Daphne.

In the Grand Hall, music itself is made visible – and music, as Nietzsche said, is the direct idea of the eternal life.

Dr. Endre RAFFAY