Porträt & Reportage

Musical treasures of Romandie 3: the music room

This summer, swissmusic takes you to unusual musical places in French-speaking Switzerland. Third stop: the music room at La Chaux de Fonds.

Julie Henoch - 2018-08-23
Musical treasures of Romandie 3: the music room - ©Aline Henchoz
©Aline Henchoz
Musical treasures of Romandie 3: the music room -
Musical treasures of Romandie 3: the music room - ©Aline Henchoz
©Aline Henchoz

Described as "a jewel", "a marvel", "a miracle", music lovers don’t have enough superlatives to qualify the acoustics of the La Chaux-de-Fonds Music Room. A crazy project initiated in 1925, inaugurated in 1955 and restored in 2015.

 

A mythical place

Located in the cultural landscape of La Chaux-de-Fonds, adjacent to the charming Heure Bleue theatre. The facade doesn’t look like much, you can easily walk along the POD (nickname of the Grand Avenue Leopold Robert that crosses through the city) without noticing the sober capital letters: "Salle de musique". Well-informed music lovers and professionals know it well, the average person is less aware. It is one of the most beautiful acoustic venues in the world. For more than 60 years, internationally renowned classical music artists (Rostropovich, Rubinstein, Ton Koopman) have given concerts here and the biggest record companies use it to make prestigious recordings of artists such as Martha Argerich, Renaud Capuçon and Keith Jarrett to name just a few. According to many musicians, it also houses one of the best pianos ever, "an eighth wonder of the world", a great Steinway carefully chosen, maintained and tuned according to each performance.

This venue however has not just been used exclusively for scholarly music. It was adopted from its inception by local societies and this is what contributes to its strength and particularity. It is a sacred place, but also a venue for large meetings in the heart of the city with its 1187 seats. It hosts both the local choirs and various popular demonstrations. Today, it belongs in equal parts to the TPR (Théâtre Populaire Romand) and the City of La Chaux-de-Fonds.

©Aline Henchoz

The continuation of a tradition

So how come a small town like La Chaux-de-Fonds, nestled in the Neuchâtel mountains, thought of adorning itself with such a jewel in the middle of the last century? The story speaks of a logical continuation, that of the tradition of "serious" concerts set up by the Music Society in 1893, bringing among others the composer Camille Saint-Saëns to the Neuchâtel mountains. It is also said that at the end of the Second World War, the bourgeoisie of La Chaux-de-Fonds wanted to demonstrate that the watchmaking metropolis could also be a cultural hub. The perfect acoustic sound is far from being a coincidence, since it was born of an extraordinary combination of talents: members of the upper middle class and a left-wing municipality, implemented from the outset and, according to the archives, a meticulous and incredible collaboration. The walls, seats, walnut woodwork on the walls, embossed ceiling, all have been carefully studied to make this room a musical instrument in its own right, a sober but classy place dedicated to music. 

But what constitutes good acoustics? Perfect reverberation based on 2 seconds when the venue is empty and 1.6 seconds when full, with a regular balance between low, medium and high frequencies. In 1962 the great American acoustic theorist Leo Leroy Beranek listed the fifty-four best music rooms in the world and included that of La Chaux-de-Fonds in his book: « a room where you can hear a needle drop on stage wherever you are in the audience ».

 

Important restoration

In 2015, the Music Room had to be restored to meet the new security standards in force. There was the fear of spoiling its peculiar acoustics, hence, as with its construction, a multitude of considerations and professionals were mobilized to meet the high musical requirements. Several millions were needed, setting off a search for funds that was sponsored by the famous choral conductor Michel Corboz, one of the many lovers of the room. According to everyone, it was a sure bet. Once again it spawned an epic tale, carefully documented in the excellent work of historians Yvonne Tissot and Marikit Taylor in their "La salle de musique La Chaux-de-Fonds, a place and an exceptional acoustics" published by Alphil Editions at the end of 2017. Full of anecdotes and archives, we find out that replacing the chairs was the major issue, because changing the fabric could significantly affect the equilibrium of the whole room. Thankfully, the original manufacturer was called upon and still active. He used the same fabric and worked hard to find an adequate upholstery filling that could meet modern fire standards.

 

The Music Room continues to resonate today. It’s currently hosting in its atmosphere of harmony and tranquility ‘the great series’ of concerts of the Music Society, which has just celebrated its 125 years.

 

Further reading: La Salle de musique La Chaux-de-Fonds. Un lieu et une acoustique d'exception, Edition Alphil, Neuchâtel, 2018

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