Situated on the bank of the Vltava in the very heart of Prague, the majestic building of the Rudolfinum was conceived as a multi-purpose seat of the Muses: a home to music, an art gallery and a conservatoire. The origins of this project, which has transcended its time, bear witness to the changes in Czech nineteenth-century society. The construction effort was spearheaded neither by the aristocracy and the sovereign, nor by leading figures of the Catholic church: instead, the role of art patrons and donors was assumed by businessmen and financial institutions. Hardly any other contemporary social group could have afforded to finance the construction of such a costly and grandiose building as the Rudolfinum promised to be – and indeed still is today.
How it all started
The construction of the Rudolfinum, a multi-purpose building whose concept was unique at the time, was initiated by Böhmische Sparkasse (Česká spořitelna). Founded in 1825, this savings bank was the oldest financial institution in the Kingdom of Bohemia.
The prestigious building project bore witness not only to the financial strength and potential of Böhmische Sparkasse, but also to its self-confidence, sense of corporate social responsibility and belief in the supreme role of art. The new building was to be located on the right bank of the Vltava, just opposite the Prague Castle.
An early construction effort on the site had given rise to a riding hall; this was later replaced by a prison and Brosche's chemical factory, which, in turn, gave way to a sawmill owned by the leading businessman Sir Vojtěch Lanna. Now it seemed the site would finally be used for a truly outstanding purpose.
The exceptional status of the investor and the project itself is evident from the list of illustrious names that had been asked to take part in the architectural tender: A. V. Barvitius, V. Lunch, G. Niemann, O. Thienemann, V. I. Ullmann, A. von Wiellemans, J. Zítek and J. Schulz.
The architectural design by Josef Zítek and Josef Schulz
The jury, made up of leading architects of the day such as H. von Ferstel, T. von Hansen or F. von Schmidt, chose Zítek’s and Schulz’s project, even though contemporary opinions criticised it for having overly suppressed the required architectural unity of the building’s mass and outward appearance to clearly distinguish its two functionally differentiated parts: the concert premises and the gallery. The façade of the concert hall, with a rusticated elevated ground floor that is separated from the other floors by a string course, faces southwards to the present-day Jan Palach Square.
The façade is articulated by Ionic columns and topped by a balustrade decorated with vases and statues of famous musicians. The gallery part, with two monumental corner towers in its north façade, has the same decorative elements, which gives the building a unified visual appearance. The entrance in the west front, facing the Vltava embankment, leads to the impressive Ceremony Hall of the Rudolfinum, lined by 25 arches. The central ceremonial staircase leads up to the gallery rooms. Translucent ceilings ensure proper illumination of the collections.
The grand opening of the Rudolfinum was supposed to have taken place on 24 January 1885, but it was postponed because of the illness of Crown Prince Rudolf. The bank Böhmische Sparkasse decided to hold the opening ceremony on 7 February 1885, although Rudolf was again unable to come (he did not see the building for the first time until in April). Nonetheless, the grand opening was a major event. In the presence of the bank’s director, both architects, and Prague’s notables, the guests viewed the newly opened Old Masters Picture Gallery and the halls of the Museum of Industrial Arts, and the climax of the celebration was a gala concert. The first work played there was Ludwig van Beethoven’s overture The Consecration of the House.
The Czech press welcomed the opening of this magnificent temple of culture, completed only shortly after the National Theatre. The only complaints of the journalists were that few Czech artists took part in the grand opening, and few Czech compositions were heard. Nationalistic disputes over the Rudolfinum came to a head in 1891 with the competition for decorating still blank areas on the walls of the Ceremony Hall. Important Czech-speaking painters were offended that they had not been the only persons approached by the bank Böhmische Sparkasse and also that too many professors from the Vienna Academy were sitting on the jury. For this reason, they refused to enter the competition. In the end, three of the fourteen submitted designs were selected as winners, but they were never realized. For this reason, these areas of the walls still contain no artistic décor.
When Europe was dancing the waltz
After its opening, the Rudolfinum became the home of the Picture Gallery (established by the Society of the Patriotic Friends of the Arts, the forerunner of the National Gallery), the Conservatory of Music (with the backing of the Association for the Promotion of Music in Bohemia), and the Museum of Industrial Arts (established by the Chamber of Trade and Commerce). The bank Böhmische Sparkasse signed contracts with all three institutions for the use of the building free of charge, as long as such use would fulfill its original purpose, namely, support for the arts. For this reason, the Association of Fine Arts also held exhibitions in the building every year, supplemented occasionally by exhibitions given by exclusively German-language arts associations.
On Saturday, 4 January 1896, Rudolfinum witnessed the inaugural concert of the Czech Philharmonic which forever linked the orchestra’s beginnings with one of the most famous Czech composers. Antonín Dvořák ascended the stage to conduct his own works: Slavonic Rhapsody No. 3 in A Flat Major, the world premiere of his Biblical songs No. 1 to 5, his Othello Overture and also the already world-famous Symphony No. 9 “From the New World”. The concert hall that saw the performance, now the home stage of our leading orchestra, bears Dvořák’s name today.
In the service of the Republic
The well-known quotation says that in times of war the Muses fall silent. In the Rudolfinum, however, the Muses fell silent once again after the war when, in 1918, the newly-created Czechoslovak state started looking for a worthy home for its parliamentary chamber. The building was adapted for its new purpose in several stages between 1919 and 1932. The alterations were supervised mostly by architects Václav Roštlapil and Rudolf Kříženecký and involved substantial changes of both function and appearance, especially in the interior.
During the first phase, the stage was brought level with the concert hall floor; the organ was removed shortly afterwards. The loggias, galleries and lounges were also adapted. Connecting the north and east parts of the building together with construction changes in the lobby facilitated communication between the various parliamentary premises. To create rooms that could be used for the meetings of parliamentary clubs and for the newly founded canteen, the builders had to lower the ceilings and partition the halls in the gallery wing of the Rudolfinum.
Rudolfinum under the Third Reich
The rehabilitation of the Rudolfinum as an arts centre began, somewhat paradoxically, during the Second World War. The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was not an autonomous political entity so there was no longer any need to house the nation’s supreme legislative and political body. Although not all of the original plans were implemented, the alterations made between 1940 and 1942 brought the building back to its original use, if only for the German Philharmonic, active in Bohemia until 1945.
Architects Bohumír Kozák and Antonín Engel, the latter a student of Josef Zítek, restored the original function and decoration of the concert stage and auditorium, but also tried to improve the hall’s acoustics, which had been criticised ever since the beginning of concert activities in the building. They also made an important creative contribution by adding another small concert hall on the ground floor, the present-day Suk Hall, whose design and decoration correspond with the original design of the Rudolfinum interiors.
Mendelssohn on the roof
The history of the Rudolfinum under the Nazi occupation is connected with the last finished novel of Jiří Weil, a Czech author, literary critic and journalist. A deeply symbolic story, Weil’s Mendelssohn Is on the Roof begins with an order of the acting Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich to remove the statue of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy from the Rudolfinum parapet, since the composer’s Jewishness allegedly taints the shrine of German art.
Two Czech workers, supervised by a Schutzstaffel member, are sent up to remove the “enemy statue”, but barely escape demolishing the statue of the Nazi idol Richard Wagner, misled by his prominent nose. With the help of a learned Jew they discover their mistake just in time to avoid a tragic fate – while below them Heydrich himself watches a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni as the stone statue of the Commendatore drags the rake into hell.
Marching toward the bright future: the Rudolfinum takes on an educational mission
In 1946 the Czech Philharmonic returned to the Rudolfinum and, until a major reconstruction in the 1990s, shared it with the Academy of Performing Arts and the Prague Conservatoire. While the southern part of the Rudolfinum continued to serve as a venue for concerts and other music performances, the northern part had to get used to a quite different form of “art”.
To accommodate the requirements of the secondary school curriculum, the Ceremony Hall was converted into a gym for conservatoire students. The majestic space of the hall resounded with the thumping of table tennis balls and the shouted instructions of P. E. teachers rather than sophisticated art discussions. In the late 1980s the Ceremony Hall almost fell victim to plans for the demolition of the central staircase and the construction of another concert hall. Fortunately, these came to nothing and the hall was preserved in its original appearance.
The great reconstruction
With the designation of the Rudolfinum as a cultural monument in 1989 it became quite clear that the whole building was in urgent need of reconstruction. It also needed new technical equipment, air conditioning, security systems, a gas boiler room etc. The reconstruction, which took place between 1990 and 1992, was entrusted to a team of architects led by Karel Prager. Their task was to carry out the required work while respecting as much as possible the original design by Josef Zítek and Josef Schulz.
After its reopening in 1992, the whole building was once again dedicated to the service of the arts, to which it had been consecrated from the start. The Czech Philharmonic is currently its main resident institution; the reconstructed exhibition premises in the northern part serve the Rudolfinum Gallery.