The sad story of the Sofiensaal

Living near Landstraße station in the third district of Vienna, it’s a fairly common sight to see little groups of tourists clutching maps, gamely trying to navigate their way through the area’s quiet, densely laid out streets. It’s a safe bet that they’re on their way to that gaudy and fanciful construction, the Hundertwasserhaus. But if they’re lucky along the way, they’ll chance upon the remains of a building that has its own, sad story to tell – a story that resonates powerfully with the cultural identity of Vienna.

In 1826 Franz Morawetz commissioned a new building from the architects August Sicard and Eduard van der Nüll (who were later to design the Vienna Opera House together – van der Nüll being so distressed by criticism of its sunken appearance that he committed suicide). Located at Marxergasse 17, it was originally a steam bath and known as the Sofienbad – named after Princess Sophie of Bavaria, the mother of Emperor Franz Josef I. The Viennese, however, did not take to steam bathing as those in Budapest had done, and between 1845 and 1849 the Sofienbad was converted into a concert and dance hall and renamed the Sofiensaal. Johann Strauss I performed there regularly and conducted at the opening ball in 1849. Later, many of the Strauss family’s waltzes were first performed there. In 1886, a second smaller hall was added, the Blauer Salon.

The building’s origins as a steam bath – principally its large, vaulted ceiling and the pool beneath the floor – gave the hall excellent acoustic properties. For this reason, Decca Records adopted the building as its principal European recording venue from 1956 to the mid-1980s. The senior producer of classical recordings for the company for much of this time was John Culshaw, who revolutionised the recording of opera. Culshaw’s innovation was to make the singers move about in the studio as they would onstage, in contrast to simply putting microphones in front of the performers as was common practice at the time. Notable recordings made at the Sofiensaal during this period included the first complete studio recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, conducted by Georg Solti, which was received with great acclaim.

In later years the Sofiensaal fell into disuse as a recording studio and was used for discos and parties. The last recording made there, in 2001, was of the Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos playing solo piano works by Schubert.

In early 2001, the building’s owners announced plans to redevelop the Sofiensaal as a conference centre. However, it was destroyed by fire in August the same year, apparently due to careless routine maintenance work. The fire burned for more than eight hours and completely destroyed the main ballroom, although the facade and walls of the building survived. Some of the decorative stucco work on the walls survived the fire, as did the Blauer Salon. There were no reported deaths or injuries.

Unprotected from the elements since the fire, the Sofiensaal has been in a sad state of gradual decay. Earlier this year, after much legal wrangling, plans were finally announced to redevelop the site and turn it into apartments [December 2008 update: the latest plans are for a hotel]. It’s a shame that in a city so full of cultural activity, it’s apparently out of the question that this once glorious building could return to its former use. What’s even more poignant is that the collective experiences of music and dance are to be ceded to the demands of contemporary urban living. Let’s hope that the shades of Strauss, Schubert and Wagner will one day float over the new Sofiensaal, bestowing upon its fortunate occupants the melodic echoes of its past.

19 thoughts on “The sad story of the Sofiensaal

  1. Hi!
    I was a junior engineer sent to work in the Sofiensaal in late 1970 as a Decca Records trainee. My memories of building during those two weeks are very crossed with the unfortunate social situation I was in – another story. The music was Mozart Kassations and Dances – VPO under Willy Boskovsky, and then the incidental music for Egmont by Beethoven – George Szell conducting VPO.
    The building seemed to ring with Wagnerian horns and tubas when leaving it late at night – not a particularly pleasant experience for a naive 21 year old, who couldn’t speak any German and wanted to come back home to London. The place was mostly cold, the corridors smelt of the 19c … musty, scented, still air, low lighting, lots of wall mirrors and ornamentation everywhere. Vienna was a distant, snowy and very foreign place to me then, it was my first trip abroad, alone and struggling to behave at the dinning table, when surrounded by some of the best musicians in Europe …

    Many stories !!
    If you want more get back to me.
    Doug

  2. Hi was 21 in 1971 when I was employed by Gordon Parry to build a temporary studio at the Musikverein for the forthcoming recordings of Leonard Bernstein Mahler recordings for Unitel Films Munich, these were quadrophonic experimental recordings which sounded sensational ,I was required to make all the cables to join all the recording equipment which included the new Dolby A noise reduction system, It was at this time I lived at the Sofiensaal studios I had a small balcony room of the main living rooms of the Decca flat, with had a cook called Frau Kirshbaumer {spelling?] Miss K to everyone Lenny came to dinner a few times.
    The studio was very busy Herbert Von Karajan later recorded the Beethoven symp series, I remember he kicked out all the wives and hangers on out of the Sofiensaal , so not to distract the musicians, the sound in the hall was full and dynamic, the Decca team had a large curtain that could be tracked up and down the hall two control the reverberation time, and the Blue Room at the side of the main hall, used for FX during the making of the Ring.
    My other duties was to rig the microphones for the Decca Tree at precise heights and spacing that were written in a little book Gordon kept, my job was also to Bias the Studer tape recorders to make sure they made specifications.
    The Sofiensaal was a special place, it was cold and spooky especially when you came back late after partying as there were many, and had to wake up the doorman who lived at the front door, then walk under the pool to the Decca flat.
    I met many amazing people and engineers that set up my life long love of music, the sound of the sofiensaal I will never forget, The Decca team got it right, as many new recordings lack the balance and clarity of the Sofeinsaal.

    • Graham super atmospheric post, but memory as so often plays us false. Karajan never recorded a Beethoven Cycle in the Sofiensaal-or indeed with the VPO. His few recordings in the 70s in Vienna were opera-Falstaff, Butterfly, his second Aida etc., and of course the 1977 Salome for EMI but recorded by Decca , Jimmy Locke being the Engineer. Glotz nominally produced but in truth had as ever little input.
      No worries- it happens to me all the time! Still a great anecdote. Best Regards, S.

  3. Hi!

    In the late 1980’s, being a fresh double bass student at Gothenburg Music Conservatory in Sweden, I had the fortunate opportunity to perform, together with a string orchestra from Gothenburg (called Musica Academica Gothoburgensis) at the Sofiensaal. We (all of us students from Gothenburg) were attending an international festival and competition for young musicians and I remember there were choirs and orchestras from many different countries taking part in this festival. The competition itself took place in Sofiensaal, and I remember it being a mere ghost of it’s former glory, but the acoustics were excellent still. So reading your story of its history, decay and final destruction saddened me.

    We ended up winning the first prize, giving us the opportunity recording a concert at ORF and also performing at the Vienna City Hall, Arkadenhof (the outside court yard) at night. I still think of that journey to Vienna in July 1988 (i think it was) being one of my best memories as a musician.

    Marcus

  4. For so many of us record collectors, the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic was wrapped up with the sound of the Sofiensaal, because of the hundreds of records that Decca made there: the Wagner and Strauss operas with Solti conducting, symphonies, concertos, dances by the Strauss family, other famous opera recordings, even the Chicago Symphony in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. I’m glad to hear that rebuilding has happened, even if the site’s purpose has changed. I’m grateful for all the glorious performances that were recorded there.

  5. It is only during my exploration of Decca’s recent 64 CD Box Set of its recordings made with the VPO, that I have discovered that the Sofiensaal a is no more. How very sad! As to Decca no longer using it after recording Lohengrin in the 1980s, I suppose that that was perhaps due to rationalization of resources consequent on Decca having ceased to be an independent company. For the rest, save for a toast to John Culshaw ( who died so prematurely ), my thoughts exactly echo those of David Wachter.

  6. Hi
    Your intro says “Decca Records adopted the building as its principal European recording venue from 1956”. However, the Wikipedia entry for the Sofiensaal says “… Decca Records adopted the building as its principal European recording venue from 1950, mono recording and 1955, stereo recording …”. Can you please clarify?
    Thanks

    • Hi Desmond, thanks very much for writing. When I was researching this article I used the same information to write the Wikipedia article as well so Wikipedia originally said 1956. I got the 1956 date from here. Since then of course other people have come along and changed the Wikipedia article and I see that the information on there about 1950 and 1955 is not linked to a source as it should be. My source for 1956 seems pretty reliable but without knowing where the 1950 and 1955 dates come from it’s hard to be sure.

      • In my 64 CD boxed set of the DECCA – WIENER PHILHARMONIKER The Orchestral edition there is a sad photo of the Sofiensall after the 2001 fire both roofless and with underlying swimming pool area exposed, Opposite another photo shows the surviving entrance incorporated into a hotel and apartments; while the text reports that ” …and by November 1955 the first sessions took place in the Sofiensall, and continues by pointing out that it was ” The parquet floor built over the empty swimming pool plus the high rook ensured a superb acoustic “

      • Thanks for the prompt reply. Certainly Decca used the Sofiensaal in 1955, e.g. in June of that year for Kleiber’s Mozart “Marriage of Figaro” (in stereo), which in considering the time for planning, negotiation and physical preparations also suggests they would have secured an arrangement some months before that. As you say, the current Wikipedia entry needs referencing, but it does ring true for Decca’s stereo recording activity there.
        Cheers

      • Again according to this Box set booklet, decca by April 1955 had moved their recording in stereo to Vienna, but the first recording Kleiber’s Eroica was not to the liking oif the team leading Arthur Hadley to delete the stereo version, and to decide that the Musicverien did not suit theri stereo set up, as by may Cosi Fan Tutte with Bohm was recorded in the drier acoustic of the Redoutensaal. It then says ” WHile this venue was used for the 200th Annivversay series of Mozart operas Figaro with Kleiber, Giovanni with Krips and Zauberflotte with Bohm it was clear to Decca that another venue was required for their main recording programme, and by Novemeber 1955 the ist session..” etc as already told. I hope that helps makes things clear.

      • The recording venues are listed on the recordings-usually- both for LP and CD. I have acres of both and they reveal that up to 1956 the venue was the Musikverein and just occasionally the Konzerhaus for Decca Mono recordings. Desmond made a chump of himself under a review I posted of the Sibelius Maazel,set. I’m grateful to A.D. _ a well known conductor whom I will not embarrass for bringing this trail to,my attention . One of the ironies of the Frau Ohne Scatten DVD of the Salzburg Loy production is that he sets it The Sofiensaal- and it was recorded in 1955 in The Musikverein. We visit Vienna several times a year-we used to stay in Am Schubertring where many Decca staff stayed in years gone by. Sadly, like the Sofiensaal it has now closed and is being redeveloped. Best Regards, SC.
        .

  7. There has always been a great deal of Decca “spin” about the acoustic difficulties of the Musikverein etc.. The primary reason for them seeking another venue was that they had such an ambitious programme planned for the VPO, having securled an exclusive contract, that the busy concert halls such as the Musikverein, Konzerthaus and the radio ” Funkhaus’ just did not allow them the access they required, being used for rehearsals and concerts on a constant basis. In addition, they wanted a dedicated control room, where access to their consoles was restricted. This was never going to happen in these other venues.
    Thus it was practicality rather than acoustic problems that drove the search for a dedicated venue,and it was serendipity that resulted in the discovery of the Sofiensaal’s unique qualities. It should be r;emembered that companies like Westminster were recording the Vienna State Orchestra in the Konzerthaus as early as 1956 using a two microphone setup similar to Mercury’s with stunning relsults- you can hear the fabulous results in 20Bit remastered sound on MCA CDs, sadly deleted at present, but they are every bit as impressive as the Decca contemporary recordings-better than say the 1956 Knappertsbusch recordings.

  8. You forgot the saddest part of its history: ” In 1926 the Austrian branch of the NSDAP was founded here. During the Nazi regime it served as a detention center for Jews. They were forced to the extermination and concentration camps from here.” Sad but also very important to remember…

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