A Symphonic Organ in the Cradle of the Symphony
The new Rieger Organ in the Golden Hall of the Music Society in Vienna
For centuries, Vienna, the capital of Austria, has been regarded by many as Europe’s music capital. It is here that the symphony was developed as a musical form by composers such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. So pervasive was the symphony in the development of Western art music that it not only dominated creative music-making until well into the 20th century, but also worldwide became the most common adjective describing orchestras and concert halls. It is also used to denote a style of organbuilding that developed towards the end of the 19th century, when organs were often used as substitutes for orchestras, and organ recitals in secular venues usually included orchestral transcriptions. With the fortunes of fashion being cyclical, the merits of symphonic organs were queried in the mid-20th century, often by their detractors. However, in recent years, one has come to realize that their salient qualities can be combined successfully with more traditional organ elements to create instruments of great versatility, warmth and beauty. Such an organ has just been installed in Vienna, the birthplace of the symphony.
Vienna is also the city in which the performance of music was first democratized. In 1812, as a result of cooperation between citizens and the nobility, the Society of the Friends of Music was founded, through which a platform was created for performing concerts by anyone for everyone. Previously, secular concerts of this nature had primarily been restricted to stately homes, so this was the start of Vienna’s world-renowned civic musical life, and of a tradition that continues to flourish.
A major step along this civic cultural road was the building of the Music Society’s concert hall in 1870 on ground that had become available following the demolition of the old city walls. The architect of this building, known locally as the Musikverein, was Theophil Hansen, who also created other impressive civic buildings along the famous Ring Road that replaced the demolished fortifications.
The Musikverein is an imposing building in neoclassical style that houses a number of facilities, amongst which is the Grand Hall that many regard as Europe’s most acoustically perfect concert hall. It is also undoubtedly one of the most beautiful. Its rich decorations and abundant gilding are opulent, yet not overbearing, resulting in the hall being referred to colloquially as the Golden Hall. At the rear of the stage, Hansen designed an organ case that visually forms the hall’s focal point, with a design derived from the form of a Greek temple. Behind this historic façade, a completely new organ has been installed by the leading Austrian organbuilding firm, Rieger Orgelbau (www.rieger-orgelbau.com); the festive inaugural concert took place on March 26, 2011 in the presence of leaders of the Austrian state, church, and civil society. This magnificent instrument complements the fame and beauty of its setting and is a fine addition to the musical infrastructure of a city that is already, world-wide, at the apogee of civic music activity.
The inaugural concert was played by the five leading European organists, who, together with two officials of the Music Society, had formed the committee that had awarded the contract to Rieger and overseen the project.
Given the organ’s significant and prominent location, this committee had specified a versatile instrument whose primary focus was for use together with orchestras, both as an instrument within the orchestral ensemble and as orchestral soloist, i.e., a symphonic organ; but also one that would do justice to the ‘classical’ organ literature. For these reasons, the organ was, among other things, to have two consoles—one mobile that could be placed amongst the members of the orchestra, and a second, with tracker action, on the cantilevered balcony above the orchestra.
Following the formalities by the Society’s dignitaries, including a speech by the president of Rieger, Wendelin Eberle, the music-making began. A fanfare by brass players from the Vienna Symphony Orchestra symbolically heralded the King of Instruments into the Golden Hall, there to be enthroned above the stage.
The first recitalist was Peter Planyavsky, former organist of St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna and professor at the Vienna Music University. Planyavsky presented a brilliant improvisation to illustrate a selection of colors from the organ’s vast tonal palette. Being symphonic in character, the organ has a rich variety of possibilities, ranging from the delicately soft to the majestic, and including an array of solo stops—flutes, reeds and mutations.
The second performer was Ludger Lohmann, professor of organ and cathedral organist in Stuttgart, who gave an impressive rendering of J. S. Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major, BWV 564, using the attached mechanical-action console. This work demonstrated the beauty of the ‘classical’ diapason choruses that form the foundation of this organ, and combine effortlessly with its symphonic nature. The principal stops of these choruses blend admirably to form one sound and are crowned by glorious mixtures that add brilliance and clarity to the contrapuntal lines of the music without ever becoming overbearing or harsh. The organ’s copious reed stops made it possible for Lohmann to select ones that, in the Germanic tradition, added color while retaining the music’s transparency and lightness of texture. The direct action and responsiveness of the mechanical console allowed the organist to articulate his playing in a way that suited the Baroque style admirably.
Martin Haselböck, internationally known as conductor of performances on original instruments with the Wiener Akademie, recitalist and organ professor, led the audience into the Romantic era with Franz Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on B.A.C.H. This piece enabled him to demonstrate the organ’s symphonic versatility and ability to swell in sound from the softest whisper to the point where it convincingly fills the hall. Playing from the detached console on stage, Haselböck made the audience forget that a few moments earlier they had been listening to a superb Baroque sound, as they were introduced to rich foundation stops, impressive chorus reeds, and convincing string-toned colors. The full organ’s sound, based on a foundation of 32′ stops, resonated majestically around the hall as the exciting piece came to its conclusion.
The next recitalist, Gillian Weir, the doyenne of English organists, who was honored for her contributions to organ music with the title Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1996, illustrated convincingly how the new organ accommodates challenging 20th-century repertoire by playing Olivier Messiaen’s “Alleluias sereins d’une âme qui désire le ciel” from L’Ascension and “Dieu parmi nous” from La Nativité du Seigneur. Her use, amongst others, of the Swell reeds—with their leaning towards the Gallic tradition—lent authenticity to this challenging music, as did her judicious choice of mutations for solo passages.
Olivier Latry, professor at the Paris Conservatoire and titular organist of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, played Alexandre-Pierre-François Boëly’s Fantasy and Fugue in B Major and the first and last movements of Charles-Marie Widor’s Organ Symphony No. 5 in F Minor. His faultless and seemingly effortless renderings of these demanding works enchanted the audience. The set of variations contained in Widor’s first movement gave the capacity audience of more than 2,000 further insights into the kaleidoscopic tonal variety attainable from the new Rieger organ.
The state-of-the-art technology of the playing aids, available on both consoles, of which more is said below, made it easy to accommodate the diverse needs of the five organists, who followed each other at the consoles in quick succession. The listener was also left with a sense of admiration for the way in which the organ’s stops have been scaled and voiced. The choice of pipe scales has resulted in the sound having sufficient fundamental tone for what is a very large hall, even when filled to capacity, without becoming turgid; care has also been taken to balance the constituent stops of the various choruses to ensure the seamless blending of their individual components. Furthermore, the voicing has resulted in clean, clear speech and a remarkable purity and evenness in tonal quality.
As mentioned above, the tonal design of the new organ is essentially symphonic. This term implies tonal warmth from a wealth of foundation stops, adequate numbers of which are string toned, a diversity of colors, including imitations of orchestral instruments, a wide volume range, and smooth crescendi and diminuendi. However, this style of organbuilding, stemming from the Romantic period, is also associated with less favorable characteristics, viz. tonal qualities that obscure part-playing in contrapuntal music, inadequate primary organ tone, i.e., insufficient stops of principal or diapason tone, insufficient upperwork and lack of brilliance, sluggish speech that impedes articulation, and thus, overall, the inability to do justice to the compositions of seminal organ composers, such as J. S. Bach.
In designing the Musikverein organ, Rieger was careful to capture the merits of the symphonic style while avoiding the excesses that led to the demise of such instruments in the 20th century. Accordingly, as already alluded to, the tonal core of each division of the Musikverein organ is a finely balanced principal chorus crowned with classical mixtures that impart the silvery brilliance required for playing much of the classical literature. In addition, the organ has three 32′ stops, fifteen stops at 16′ pitch and thirty-six 8′ stops, which in total ensure that its tone has the golden warmth and fullness required of a symphonic organ.
There are 21 reed stops of varying colors and strengths, some—in the Solo division—on high wind pressure; sufficient mutation stops; a mounted Cornet on the Hauptwerk, and the stops necessary for creating a Cornet Séparé on each of the Swell and Solo Organs. The 86 speaking stops are divided over four manual divisions and pedal, three of which (Orchesterwerk, Swell, and Solo) are enclosed to give the maximum possible dynamic range.
The imposing Hauptwerk’s comprehensive principal chorus is matched by a battery of trumpet-toned reeds at 16′, 8′ and 4′ pitch, whose characters lean towards the Germanic. In contrast, the chorus reeds of the large Swell Organ are modestly French in nature.
An interesting feature of the organ is the large Orchesterwerk division that was conceived to house stops that would blend exceptionally with actual orchestral instruments. The Orchesterwerk division has its own pedal stops contained within its swell box, based on a 32′ Subbass, to ensure that the dynamics of the pedal and manual sections are precisely aligned with each other. Although from the specification it would appear that no provision has been made for the traditional Positive organ that many would regard as important for playing much of the classical literature, compensation for this is made on the fourth manual: the Solo division contains a bright secondary principal chorus, alongside the expected solo reeds and flutes.
The organ’s layout
The organ is favorably situated directly behind the orchestra, its close proximity ensuring the maximum possible blending of the sound of these two partners. Physically, the base of the organ is at the level of the conductor’s podium, but is concealed by the raked seating of the orchestral musicians, which visually shortens the actual 36-foot height of the instrument. At the ‘basement’ level, two of the organ’s blowers are situated, as also a number of wind reservoirs and trunking. Above this, at the level of the rearmost musicians, one finds the enclosed Orchesterwerk division and its accompanying pedal section—meaning that there is literally no gap between the orchestra and this part of the organ.
The ‘lower story’ of the organ is hidden behind an elegant white screen, decorated with panels containing pairs of griffons, and is framed by six ornate gilded pillars that lead the eye upwards to the organ balcony and ‘upper story’ that they appear to support.
The main Pedal stops are placed at the lower level on either side of the Orchesterwerk division, with the longest pipes at the extreme left and right, rising up into the upper story, e.g., those of the full-length Kontraposaune 32′. In contrast, the open wooden pipes of the Kontrabass 32′ are mounted horizontally against the rear wall of the organ, behind the Orchesterwerk swell box, with the longest being mitered to fit them into the 30-foot width of the organ case.
The gallery that visually separates the lower and upper stories of the organ case provides the space for the mechanical action console. In order that organists using this console should not be isolated from the sound of the stops on the level below them, tonal passages have been constructed to link the two levels, those from the Orchesterwerk swell box appropriately being fitted with swell shutters.
The Hauptwerk is to be found in the central position behind the façade pipes that were grouped by Hansen into three classical sections (which always have been, and remain, silent). The prominent position of the Hauptwerk, raised above the stage, allows this important division to speak directly into the body of the hall, as is fitting for the core of the organ. Behind the Hauptwerk and to either side are the Swell Organ and Solo Organ, each in their respective boxes. These, together with the enclosed Orchesterwerk division, can be controlled from one swell pedal, thus enabling the player easily to make finely nuanced adjustments to the organ’s volume.
At the top of the organ, behind the façade pipes and partially in the space created by the triangular pediment that crowns the organ case, are a third blower and the wind reservoirs for the Hauptwerk, Swell and Solo organs.
As already mentioned, the organ has two consoles. The attached console is made of walnut wood, whereas the mobile console has a black lacquered exterior that allows it to harmonize on stage with members of the orchestra. The key action of the attached console is mechanical, while that of the second, mobile console (which can be placed anywhere on the stage) is electric. In both cases, the stop action is electric. The normal couplers on the attached console are mechanical and the mobile console has additional “unison off” and adjustable “divided” pedal options. On the moveable console, the organist can choose between having the Hauptwerk or Orchesterwerk organs playable from the bottom manual. Furthermore, the mobile console is fitted with an electrically operated, adjustable feature that allows organists to save their preferred positions for the organ bench and the pedalboard in relation to the manuals, and to recall these when required, after which the preferred positions are taken up automatically. The use of these features at the inaugural concert, and the resulting speed with which one organist could follow another, proved their value in a concert hall setting.
A final, unique, feature of the electric console is that the pedalboard and bench can be retracted electrically to the point where the console can be pushed on its platform through the narrow stage doors when not required on stage. In all other respects, including the layout, the two consoles are identical.
The Rieger capture system, Rieger Electronic Assistant (REA), is used in the Musikverein organ, fully at both consoles and interchangeably between them. The system makes provision for 20 individual organists, each having up to 1,000 combinations, the possibility of inserting three additional combinations between existing ones, and the ability to archive registrations for 250 pieces, each with up to 250 registration combinations. The system’s features include, among other things, sequencing, sostenuto, copying, and repeat functions; divisional and general cancels; unison-off options; and four individually adjustable crescendi. The Rieger recording and playback functions, tuning system, transposing facility, and MIDI features are also available.
The organ has 6,138 pipes, most of which are on slider windchests that are operated by a tracker system from the mechanical console and by pallet magnets from the mobile console; some of the largest pipes are placed on auxiliary pneumatic chests. Individual wind pressures are used for the different divisions of the organ and all windchests are divided into bass and treble sections, each with their own appropriate wind pressures. The bass sections are supplied with stable wind from bellows, whereas the trebles are fed flexibly from schwimmer reservoirs. Of the pipes referred to above, 639 are made of wood, with the remainder being constructed of various alloys of tin and lead. The largest pipe is more than 32 feet in length and weighs approximately 880 pounds.
Vienna is the cradle of the symphony as art form, and the glorious Great Hall of the Musikverein a venue par excellence for symphony concerts. It is therefore entirely appropriate that the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien (the Society of Music Friends in Vienna) should have wanted a secular, symphonic organ for their beautiful hall. They specified an instrument that would match the quality of the world-renowned ensembles and artists that perform in their famous venue, a concert hall organ whose primary function is playing with orchestras, but also able to accompany other instruments and choirs, and at times be a recital instrument. Rieger Orgelbau has met these high (and potentially conflicting) expectations by judiciously combining the positive features of symphonic organs from an earlier era with the time honored attributes of classical organ building, thereby masterfully overcoming the shortcomings of instruments from the Romantic period, and creating a prototype for a second generation of symphonic organs.
The Musikverein organ is not a copy of an instrument from any historical school of organbuilding, but an absolutely modern instrument that draws on the rich values of and experience from different organbuilding periods, and simultaneously leads the art of organ building into the future. Its essence is ‘symphonic’—not by being ‘historic’, but through infusing the term with new meaning. Those involved in the project—the Society of Music Friends, the committee of organ experts, Rieger-Orgelbau—are all to be congratulated on creating a new milestone in the history of organ building and setting the highest standards for concert hall instruments of the future.
—Dr. Antony Melck
Professor, University of Pretoria
Photo credit: Wolf-Dieter Grabner/Musikverein
Vienna Musikverein, Golden Hall 2011
Orchesterwerk (expr.) I. C–c4
16′ Liebl. Gedackt
8′ Viola da Gamba
2′ Mixtur IV
22⁄3′ Harm. aeth. II–V
Hauptwerk II. C–c4
8′ Flûte Major
22⁄3′ Großmixtur IV–VI
11⁄3′ Mixtur IV–V
8′ Cornet V
Swell (expr.) III. C–c4
8′ Voix céleste
8′ Flûte harm.
4′ Flûte oct.
22⁄3′ Nazard harm.
13⁄5′ Tierce harm.
2′ Fourniture V
8′ Trompette harm.
8′ Clairon harm.
8′ Voix Humaine
Solo (expr.) IV. C–c4
8′ Flauto Amabile
11⁄3′ Mixtur IV
8′ Tromp. Royal
22⁄3′ Rauschpfeife III
Rieger Combination System
• 20 users, with 1,000 combinations with 3 inserts each
• Archive for 250 tracks with 250 combinations each
4 Crescendi, adjustable
3 free couplers
Main console (mechanical)
Mobile console (electric)
Ow/Hw 8′, Sw/Hw 8′, So/Hw 8′
Sw/Ow 8′, So/Ow 8′, So/Sw 8′,
Ow/P 8′, Hw/P 8′, Sw/P 8′, So/P 8′
Ow/Hw 8′, Sw/Hw 8′, So/Hw 8′, Sw/Ow 8′,
So/Ow 8′, So/Sw 8′, Ow/Ow 16′, Ow/Ow 4′
Sw/Sw 16′, Sw/Sw 4′, So/So 4′
Sw/Hw 16′, Sw/Hw 4′, Ow/Hw 16′, Ow/Hw 4′, Ow/Ped 4′, Sw/Ped 4′
Rieger Tuning System
Rieger Replay System
Divided Pedal (electric console)
Manual Change I–II (electric console)
Hauptwerk 85mm bass 105mm treble
Swell 80mm bass 90mm treble
Solo 75mm bass 90mm treble
Orchesterwerk 75mm bass 90mm treble
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