I have been in Vienna, on the jury of a competition, the outcome of which will be one of many festivities surrounding the rebuilding of the Riesenorgel ("Giant Organ") in St Stephen’s Cathedral. As a second round of the contest is coming up in a few months’ time, I won’t say any more about it for now. But my visit allowed me to become thoroughly fascinated by this impressive organ-restoring feat.
The Cathedral’s once much-loved organ burnt down in 1945, and a fine-looking new modern instrument appeared in the early 1960s. Alas, much of the pipework had to be fitted in behind a stone arch, hugely restricting its resonance. In the 1990s, a more traditional pipe organ appeared in a side aisle, and it’s this that has been used for the last thirty years.
With great boldness, a group of Cathedral musicians set about raising the roughly 3.5 million Euros needed to throroughly restore the Riesenorgel, move it in front of the arch, and what’s more, connect it to the Choir organ in the aisle. Climbing up to the organ gallery to see all this going on was an amazing experience. Firstly for the view of course, but also to see the organbuilders (from the Austrian firm of Rieger) so calmly going about their business, as if carrying out a routine loft extension. We learned that the sets of pipes, some of them lying around on trestle tables, had been perfectly calculated in the factory, thus cutting down on problems for the fitters working at ‘the sharp end’.
The organ will be consecrated by the Archbishop of Vienna on Easter Day, 12 April 2020. The original organ, the one lost in a fire, was last played on Easter Day 1945, which miraculously also fell on 12 April. Only 75 years (exactly, to the day) to right this wrong !