It may sound corny, but I have a mental list of "Things I Want to See before I Die." For a number of years, attending a concert at Vienna’s famous Musikverein has been near the top of my list.
Considered by many to have the best acoustics in the world, the Großer Musikvereinssaal (also called the Goldener Saal or "Golden Hall") is a splendid place, yet surprisingly intimate in comparison to some of the sterile 20th century halls which have supposedly been built in accordance with acoustical principles.
Back in 1870 when the Musikverein was built, the science of "acoustics" did not yet exist, which makes the hall’s resulting exquisite sound all the more incredible. No one knows the precise secret of the Golden Hall’s magic. Although it’s been used as a model for countless halls on several continents, none to date have successfully replicated it. It is, quite simply, sui generis: a thing unto itself.
Millions of people know what the hall looks like, of course, because of the world famous New Year’s Day Concert broadcast each year featuring the Vienna Philharmonic. I’m told that aside from famous statesmen and assorted dignitaries, the average person has about a one-in-a-thousand shot at getting a ticket to this event. There’s a lottery for the available tickets, but it may take several decades to secure a seat – with a little luck.
I’ve been fascinated by concert hall acoustics for a long time, so when I found out that tours are given of the Musikverein, I made a point of joining one. More intimate than the tours given of the State Opera, the Musikverein tour also seems to draw a more knowledgeable audience. Most people who come to Vienna have heard about the Opera, but it is musicians and music lovers who have heard of – indeed revere the Musikverein.
If there were such a thing as a religion based on music (an appealing notion, if you ask me), its chief temple of worship would be the Musikverein. I can write this without feeling I’m exaggerating in the least.
On the afternoon of the tour, I make my way to the box office on Bösendorferstraße. It’s a small place, soon filled with little clusters of people, a few dozen altogether, waiting expectantly. Exactly on the hour, for this is Austria, after all, and events begin as scheduled, the guide made his entrance, explaining that he was giving the tour in both English and German. The majority spoke German, but a smaller group, from the UK, US, Canada, and Asia, provided the rationale for the English tour.
The term "Musikverein" really refers to two things: the building containing the concert halls and the society which owns the building, the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Music Lovers). We owe more than one might imagine to the various musical appreciation societies, as historically they have done much to support and influence the composition and culture of music.
Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde was and is one of the most influential of these societies. The musical tastes of the 19th-century educated Viennese middle class, the first members of the Musikverein, are still reflected in the way music is programmed and performed today. They shaped what we now consider to be the standard concert repertory and were the first practitioners of the relatively new field of musical criticism.
On the tour, I learned straightaway that I was at the Musikverein on the eve of an historic occasion. The next day was the opening of four new halls, all subterranean. One might well raise an eyebrow at the idea of four new halls, but rest assured these are not "halls" in the massive sense. The largest of the four new halls, the Gläserne Saal , seats no more than 380 people.
The new halls no doubt provide additional performance outlets for the much-in-demand Musikverein, which rents out its various halls when they not being used for the thirty or so concert series sponsored by the society. Around five hundred concerts a year are performed at the Musikverein in a wide range of types, everything from debuts of modern commissioned works to small baroque chamber music ensembles.
The first half of the tour was conducted in the Brahms-Saal, now dedicated to Johannes Brahms, the composer and musical director who played such an important role in the Musikverein. Seating around 600 people, the hall was fully revamped in the 1990’s, faithfully restoring the green and gold decor that formed the original setting. It’s easy to imagine Clara Schumann performing the first piano recital there in 1870. The Brahms-Saal is ideal for that most typical of Viennese musical forms, Leider, as well as solo recitals and chamber music.
Next, the tour entered the Golden Hall, where I felt like Hansel or Gretel stumbling upon the gingerbread house in the forest. But no witch awaited; overhead were serene paintings of the Apollo and the nine Muses; to each side were row upon row of golden caryatids; in the front of the hall, light streamed through windows, illuminating an immense golden pipe organ and the stage. It brought to mind a phrase I’d seen earlier in the week, referring to a painting but equally applicable to this gorgeous setting: "Ein Flimmern und Schimmern überall" - a glimmering and shimmering all around.
Like many public spaces in Vienna, the Golden Hall seems feminine, almost voluptuous. There’s a sense of rhythm, of liveliness, and intimacy, though this, the largest of the halls, holds nearly two thousand people.
I waited somewhat impatiently as the guide gave the the German portion of the tour, wanting to hear what he had to say about the hall’s famous acoustics. He turned out to be wonderfully knowledgeable, and told us what we were well prepared to believe: that no one fully understands why the hall produces such a gorgeous sound. However, there are three elements that determine any hall’s acoustics: shape, size, and materials. In all three, the Golden Hall has turned up trumps.
First, the rectangular shape of the hall has been proven to be the most successful in producing favorable acoustics. This has been borne out in several other famous halls such as Boston Symphony Hall and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, which share the same "shoebox" design as the Musikverein. The relatively narrow shape of these halls produces a large number of sound reflections from the side walls, which then reach each seat in the audience. The high ceilings add to the richness of the reverberation.
It is important, however, that there not be too much reverberation, which is why the best halls are not large by modern standards. The ideal size, acoustically, is a hall holding around two thousand people. In a larger space, the sound takes longer to travel to the walls and ceiling and then back to the audience, which means the reverberation can become pronounced or even distorted. Think of the acoustics of large cathedrals, which are wonderful places to experience organ recitals but dismal places to listen to symphonic music.
In terms of the third element, building materials, it’s well known that carpets and softer materials absorb sound while hard materials such as stone, glass, and wood reflect it. The Golden Hall has a great deal of wood, but there is something rather special about the way this wood is employed. There is a hollow space under the floor of the hall – initially designed to store the seats, which are removed to make way for a dance floor during the winter balls. What was quickly noticed, however, was that when the space below the floor was filled, the sound of the hall dramatically changed – for the worse . In essence, the hollow chamber below the floor acts as a vast resonating chamber, a sort of gigantic violin. Not only that, but the ceiling, which is also made of wood, is hung rather than mounted, which produces a somewhat "elastic" quality to the sound. And there are other factors contributing to the complex, not-completely-understood equation of the Musikverein’s sound. The caryatids, for example, are hollow rather than solid.
Near the end of the tour, the guide told the following story, with considerable panache:
"During World War II, many buildings in Vienna were destroyed. Most of the Opera House lay in ruins. Bombs landed all around this area. But only one hit the Musikverein..."
He paused a moment for dramatic effect.
"It came through the window, up there, and landed on the floor here but did not explode. It caused no structural damage whatsoever. It was a stroke of luck – but perhaps it was more than that. Perhaps it was providence."