Stained glass mural in Montreal's Place des Arts metro station
Title: L'Histoire de la musique à Montréal ou Les Arts lyriques
Designed and built by: Frédéric Back
Height: 2.74 metres
Width: 13.72 metres
Donated to the Montreal Transportation Commission by Steinberg Inc. as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations
Covering the entire wall of the eastern mezzanine of the Place des Arts metro station, this magnificent stained glass mural traces the history of music in Montreal. From the trumpet call heralding the birth of the city in the time of Jacques Cartier and the traditional songs of the coureurs de bois to the musical awakening of the 1850s and the dynamism of contemporary music, the mural highlights key figures in Canadian music from the 16th to the 20th century.
Lit by 105 fluorescent bulbs, the mural consists of thousands of pieces of glass held in an iron framework weighing a tonne and forming irregular panes. Frédéric Back made it using his usual technique involving four layers of glass. An outer plate of textured tempered glass was used to protect the overall work and make the colours glow. The drawings were scratched into black paint on the second layer of glass. Coloured varnishes were then applied between two other plates of glass a centimetre apart, sealed to keep the air out.
"I made things very difficult for myself by varying the proportions and angles of the glass panes," recalls Frédéric Back. "To give movement to the overall composition, large iron curves were laid over the straight lines. This both protects and strengthens the structure. It was very complex, strenuous work since all the panes had to be handled many times and fit into the metal frames with their varying geometry."
The Montreal metro was inaugurated in October 1966. Mayor Jean Drapeau wanted it to be the most beautiful subway system in the world and dreamed of turning it into an underground art gallery. Frédéric Back was commissioned to create the first artwork the following January. When he was contacted by Robert LaPalme, the art director of the metro art gallery, Back's credits already included the renovation of the Hélène de Champlain Restaurant and creation of a number of stained glass windows or murals. He was enthusiastic about the theme and scope of the project from the outset.
He was initially asked to do a stained glass mural honouring Montreal's four big music stars of the 19th century: Guillaume Couture, Calixa Lavallée, Emma Albani and Alexis Contant. Finding the concept too limited, Frédéric Back decided instead to recreate the history of music in Montreal. He began several months of research, delving into four centuries of history that had never been explored from a musical point of view. It was an enormous undertaking and the project stretched through the entire year of 1967. He had to use his vacation and even take a month of leave without pay from Radio-Canada to complete and install the stained glass. He also hired the labourers himself and even paid for the insurance and bronze plaques identifying the work. But it was an extremely rewarding experience-though perhaps not from a financial point of view.