Within Theophil Hansen’s visually and acoustically brilliant Großer Musikvereinssaal, the organ forms the central element. Prominently located at the front of the auditorium, it harmonises in clarity and consistency with the homogeneity and opulence of the design, modelled upon Greek antiquity. Since 2011, the famous organ casing, which defines the auditorium, has contained one of the best concert organs in the world. This instrument, built by the organ manufacturers Rieger-Orgelbau from Schwarzach in Vorarlberg, is the fourth organ to be installed in the building since it opened its doors in 1870.
Fate was not kind to the instruments preceding the present one. The first organ, played at its premiere performance on 15 November 1872 by Anton Bruckner, was built by Friedrich Ladegast from Weißenfels an der Saale. Numerous technical innovations intended to improve its performance in fact soon created irreparable problems, which eventually rendered the organ unusable only a few decades later.
The commission to build a new instrument was awarded in 1904 to the imperial and royal court organ manufacturers Gebrüder Rieger from Jägerndorf in Austrian Silesia, today known as Krnov in the Czech Republic. When a grenade entered the Musikverein building in the last days of the Second World War in 1945, this organ was damaged, temporarily repaired and in 1948 renovated by Friedrich Molzer. Not long after, however, wear and tear on the electronic tracker actions built in at that time affected the precision functioning of the instrument.
When considering a second new organ in the 1960s, the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde engaged the conductor and organist Karl Richter as an artistic consultant. The companies E. F. Walcker & Cie from Ludwigsburg and Werner Walcker-Mayer from Guntramsdorf near Vienna were commissioned to build an instrument with one hundred stops and electronic trackers. From the first concert performance by Richter in 1968 until his untimely death in 1981, organ music experienced a veritable renaissance at the Musikverein. Thereafter, however, it became clear that the instrument was too narrowly attuned to one particular organist and little suited to its actual (renewed) principal task as an orchestral instrument. Furthermore, wear and tear concerning the electronic trackers once again created insurmountable problems.
In the case of the latest instrument in the Großer Musikvereinssaal, a commission jury was created at the turn of the millennium comprising five internationally renowned organists (Dame Gillian Weir, Olivier Latry, Ludger Lohmann, Martin Haselböck and Peter Planyavsky). Together with the company Rieger-Orgelbau from Schwarzach in Vorarlberg, the successor company to the imperial and royal court organ manufacturer Gebrüder Rieger in Jägerndorf, which had built the second organ in 1907 for the Musikverein, an instrument with 6,138 pipes and 81 stops was designed. At an inauguration concert on 26 March 2011, the organ was blessed by the Archbishop of Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, a member of the Senate of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. Since then, it has fulfilled its main function admirably as an orchestral instrument in performances of the symphonic repertoire with organ.