In December 1857 members of the Musikverein were rejoicing about a "great, truly imperial Christmas present". The Emperor Franz Joseph 1 had given permission for the demolition of the old city walls and thereby ereaied the possibility for the expansion of ihe city over a wide area. This was the beginning of the Viennese Ringstrasse period. According to ihe Emperor's decree, new buildings, including an opera house, galleries and museums, were to be built on the Ringstrasse, and this was the source of hope that the Musikverein would finally be able to move out of its old building.
This building, in the centre of the city at number 12, Tuchlauben, had been taken over by the society in 1831 and contained the first real concert hall in Vienna. There was space for an audience of 700, a capacity which was soon not large enough to accommodate public demand.
The other activities of the expanding society, the archives and the conservatory, were also urgently in need of more space. Despite this, patience was demanded once again. Only in 1863 did the Emperor show himself in generous mood and allocate the soeiety a large plot of land opposite the Karlskirche.
The music lovers had the chance to add an impressive building to the ensemble of Ringstrasse architecture. They planned on a correspondingly large scale. There was to be space for two concert halls in the new building. Prominent architects including Theophil Hansen, August Siccard von Siccardsburg and Eduard van der Noll were invited to produce drafts. Siccardsburg and van der Noll, the designer of the Court Opera, declined. Hansen was the one who remaihed and he proved himself to be the very best choice.
The Main Concert Hall
“As high as any expectations could be, they would still be exceeded by the first impression of the hall which displays an architectural beauty and a stylish splendour making it the only one of its kind.” This was the reaction of the press to the opening of the new Musikverein building and the first concert in the Grosser Musikvereinssaal on 6 January 1870.
The impression must have been overwhelming – so overwhelming that Vienna’s leading critic, Eduard Hanslick, irritatingly brought up the question of whether this Grosser Musikvereinssaal “was not too sparkling and magnificent for a concert hall”. “From all sides spring gold and colours.”
Was this splendour, as Hanslick as a shocked ascetic supposed, not a distraction from the music? Or does it rather have the exact opposite effect – as numerous music lovers have found until today – of directing the attention towards the music?
The festive atmosphere of this hall throws off everything “which reminds one of everyday life”, wrote one Viennese critic, Carl Eduard Schelle. He thought that the Grosser Musikvereinssaal did not only provide the ideal atmosphere for music but was music in itself:
“... in the architectural details, in the ornament, the tones of colour such as in the separation of masses a perception does in fact manifest itself which one would like to call musical; should it be possible to think of Mozart’s great ‘Jupiter’ Symphony constructed in solid, visible forms, then this new concert hall in the Musikverein building would provide a suitable picture. Hansen and Mozart really do have related characteristics in common.”
The Grosser Musikvereinssaal, exactly 48.80 metres long, 19.10 metres wide and 17.75 metres high, combines the in itself static, stabile basic form of a rectangle with enlivening details. The walls and the ceiling are rhythmically arranged, forms and colours enter into an interesting interplay.
The ceiling paintings by August Eisenmenger – Apollo and the nine Muses, surrounded by allegorical figures – create a dynamic counterpoint to the dominant golden tone of the hall.
Another no less attractive contrast is the plain white of the sculptures by Franz Melnitzky. The pairs of female figures, indolently elegant, moulded over the balcony doors and the organ, perfectly correspond to the straight-backed caryatids in the stalls – feminine variations in the historical interplay of the main hall.
In the midst of this, the art of music takes on the concrete form of marble busts of famous composers of the past (only masters who had already died before 1870 were accepted into this illustrious gallery). And above all this there is the row of arched windows. Daylight also plays its part in Hansen’s symphony of colour.
Beyond all artistic details one thing particularly distinguishes the main concert hall, its aesthetics fulfilled what the founding fathers had in mind as an idea of the Musikverein. This hall, in which each area is just as important as another, excludes nobody but rather creates connections.
More than two thousand people, 1,744 seated and 300 standing, come together as one audience. To experience music among friends, this is what makes the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde so special.