L'Orgue Saint-Jean-Baptiste (Malteserkirche) à Vienne / Autriche



The Church of St. John the Baptist in Vienna (Maltese Church)

The Organ in the Maltese Church of Vienna

The Restoration of the Organ

Gottfried Sonnholz - biographical notes




Richard Freiherr von Steeb
The Church of St. John the Baptist in Vienna (Maltese Church)

The Knights of St. John (Knights Hospitallers) came to Vienna in the early 1200s. A record dating from 1217 mentions their hospital and chapel which belonged to the commandery of Mailberg in Lower Austria, which was under jurisdiction of the Grand-Commander of Italy , Hungary and Austria . Later it was part of the Grand-Priory of Bohemia . The main task of the commandery (as of the Order in general) was the care of the sick and poor. Fra' Marquart was the first commander whose name we know, being recorded in 1267.

Soon after 1400 a pilgrim's hostel was built next to the church which was enlarged to its present shape at this time. The vault under the gallery shows a lion with its offspring, an image for Christ giving eternal life to mankind.

The Knights Hospitallers Commandery played an important role during the Turkish sieges and also when the imperial court was moved to Vienna during the 17th century. The famous court preacher and Augustinian monk Abraham a Santa Clara delivered some of his sermons in this church and there is still a close connection with the Parish Church of St. Augustine.

The 18th century saw various changes made to the interior. Commander Fra' Michael Ferdinand Count Althann (1708-1779) commissioned a new painting for the High Altar which was executed by Johann Georg Schmidt in around 1750 and still survives. He also installed a new organ, made by the famous Viennese organbuilder Gottfried Sonnholz.

Further alterations were made in 1806 under Commander Fra' Franz von Colloredo (1736-1806). He commissioned the present façade with its Corinthian pilasters, a new frame for the High Altar painting, the large statues of St. Peter and St. Paul beside it, the pulpit, and the memorial for the victorious Grand Master of the Order, Fra' Jean Parisot de La Valette (1557-1568) who successfully defended Malta against the Turks.

The Church was incorporated into the new front arrangement of the houses on the Kärntnerstrasse in 1837-39, according to the design of Alois Pichl. In 1857 new stained glass windows were put in. Restoration work took place in 1968, 1972 and 1983/4. These, however, were only partial and thus in 1997/1998 a complete renovation was undertaken, commissioned by the Duke and Grand Prior, Bailiff Fra' Wilhelm von und zu Liechtenstein. The outer façade was renovated in 2009, issued by Prokurator Bailiff Norbert Count Salburg-Falkenstein.

Translation: Konstantin Reymaier


Wolfgang Karner
The Organ in the Maltese Church of Vienna

Little is known about the origins of the Organ in the Maltese Church in Vienna . It is neither signed nor do any documents survive which could tell us something about date and builder. However, some indications are given by the church building and the instrument itself.

In the central section of the case we find the coat of arms of the Althann family. Michael Ferdinand Johann Count Althann ( Prague June 25th 1708 - May 18th 1779) was made Commander of St. John in Vienna in 1749. This we know from the 32 shields with coat of arms displayed in the church. Most likely the instrument was commissioned by him.

The roller board inside the instrument bears the letters "FR" and "1767" on its reverse. They are painted with the same paint used for the original decoration of the casework. At least we know the time when this was done. Given the elaborate carvings and gilding of the case we can assume that financial means were not restricted. It is more than likely that the whole project was completed within a very short period of time.

Most probably the organ was built by Gottfried Sonnholz (1695-1781). Similarities to his other instruments make this obvious. He seems to have made all parts except the windchest for the manual division for which he reworked an older piece.

First changes were made to the instrument in the early 1800s. The large single rise bellows with its feeder underneath and the original wooden springs all date from this time. It is supported by beams which are older and still indicate the position of the original 18th century wedge bellows. An inscription inside indicates that these changes were made in 1812.

Unfortunately, the original tin front pipes were confiscated during World War I and melted down for use in the weapons industry. In 1923 Josef and Franz Ullmann the Younger installed zinc replacement pipes. The instrument was also cleaned and tuned on this occasion. They seem to have been responsible for a few further minor alterations to the windchest (replacing the leather purses with brass) and voicing.

Serious alterations were made in 1949/ 1950: Johann Pirchner of Steinach in Tyrol enlarged the instrument, being advised by Egon Kraus and Anton Heiller. A second manual was added and a new console to go with it. The number of stops doubled and the compass was enlarged to 56 keys on the manuals and 30 on the pedal.

The pedal section was placed at the back of the organ gallery. Space gained inside the case was used for two additional windchests: a larger one for the second manual was put at the back of the case and an extension-chest for the missing notes of the now extended compass containing the pipes of the bottom sharps and all pipes above top C. This was placed in the central tower above the pipes of the Great.

Pirchner reused all existing pipework, including the front pipes, but made some substantial alterations to it. Pipes were shortened and tuning slides were fitted. Of the pipe boards only those for the front pipes remained original. However, demand for space made alterations necessary and they were also cut.

Both the stop action and trackers were rebuilt. Eighteenth-century parts were reused but altered according to need. Restrictions of space led to a rather complicated action with little or no access. The new layout caused considerable impediments to any subsequent demands of repair. The main wind trunk was now outside the case. Flexible trunking brought the wind to the chests.

The church was restored in 1998. At this time the organ case was repainted in its original green. For some time it had a brown coating, traces of which can still be seen on the mouths of some of the pedal pipes (Suppass 16) at the back of the case.

In 2015 Wolfgang Karner was commissioned to bring the instrument back to its original condition. The project was initiated and advised by the head of the Department of Church Music in the Archdiocese of Vienna, Konstantin Reymaier, in cooperation with Gerd Pichler, head of the department for historic instruments within the Bundesdenmalamt, the national conservation authority in Austria.

The decision to restore the instrument to its original state was made partly on the grounds of accessibility. For many years the organ was in quite a sad state. Cleaning and repairs would have neither improved nor changed the state of affairs: most parts inside the case would have remained cramped or inaccessible.

Examining the instrument showed that most of the original pipework had survived. From a total of 339 necessary pipes only 35 front pipes and 24 smaller pipes were missing. 280 pipes are by Gottfried Sonnholz, a total of 83%. This was more than expected. The original manual windchest, roller board, parts of the stop action, and trackers also survived. The same applies to the wind trunk, the nineteenth-century bellows and the organ front, which are still original, although the latter is altered in its lower parts.

The reconstructed specification of the original instrument can be found on page x . Orthography was taken from a surviving contract with Melk Abbey.

Translation: Konstantin Reymaier


Wolfgang Karner
The Restoration of the Organ

The whole extent of alterations became evident only after the instrument was dismantled in 2015. Changes to the casework had been made which seriously endangered its stability: the lower part of the back was cut away. The connection between main case and floor was provided solely by the console and a few boards. The arrangement was held only with a few screws. Connecting beams inside the case were disposed of in order to provide space for the new and now extended action. Holes were made into some of the fillings to provide access for wind trunks. Further cuttings were made to the central section making space for new wind chests.

It was not only the work of 1949/1950 which endangered the stability. Sonnholz' original construction itself was already somewhat risky: the frame supporting the upper part of the case is considerably larger than the base. The large volutes serve only decorative purposes. They are fastened from underneath and provide no support whatsoever. The whole weight was sitting on the frame which was causing it to deform, endangering the instrument to break apart. In order to avoid this, an additional beam was installed, placed horizontally on the main frame and connected with it.

All parts which were cut or lost in the 20th century were replaced. The main case now rests safely on two vertical beams and the whole construction is supported by a new horizontal beam beneath the floor and the medieval balcony made of stone. All new parts and the console were made using traditional eighteenth-century techniques. Keyboard and backfalls were reconstructed according to another and quite similar instrument by Sonnholz which can be found in the chapel of Vienna 's Old Town Hall . The original roller board was restored, later changes corrected, and missing parts of the stop action were reconstructed according to the existing ones.

The design of the bench was taken from an old photograph taken in 1934. It shows the organ console of Mariabrunn, made by Sonnholz in 1734.

It has already been noted that Sonnholz used an existing windchest. However, he made new pallets and springs which are still surviving. The original leather pull-down purses had been lost and exchanged with brass ones. This alteration has now been reversed. The upper boards and rack boards however, had to be reconstructed but the original placement of the pipes was very obvious.

Unfortunately the original pedal windchest was lost. It was taken away in 1950 and nothing of it could be found. Various traces guided the reconstruction. Remains of paint and pipe-fixings showed the original position of the pedal pipes at the back of the case. The space indicated quite a low height. Another organ built by Sonnholz in 1728 showed a similar situation: the instrument originally built for the Austin Friars Church in Vienna and transferred to the village of Trautmannsdorf/Leitha in 1785. The pedal chests do not have sliders but are operated by ventils. This enabled a construction of low height. The same technique can be found in the instrument of Tulbing. Our reconstruction followed these examples.

Sonnholz signed every pipe by hand. His inscriptions give a clear indication of pitch and placement within the instrument. Both the position on the chest and the sounding pitch are noted - a fact of particular importance for transposing stops like a Twelfth. The stop itself is also determined: "4" for Principal, "3" for Quinta, "m" for Mixtur and so on. This way of marking is of invaluable help, particularly when reconstructing a Mixture. Wooden pipes are signed with ink. Putting the pipework back to its original position was therefore a straightforward task. Most of the effort went into lengthening the pipework which has been cut in 1949/1950 .

Unaltered pipes of the Flöten 4', Octava 8' and Principal 4' inside the case gave some indication of the original pitch. The calculation could further be supported by the fact that there was no need for any cutting of pipes, the front pipes corresponded exactly with the pipe-shades and, finally, the 16' pipes fitted into the space determined by the historic case with absolute precision.

Wind pressure had to be determined, too. The question was as similarly intriguing as looking for the correct pitch. Given the size of the church, its grand acoustic and long reverberation is astonishing. Sound would become incomprehensible unless the pipes speak with great precision and clarity. Wind-pressure needs to correspond with the cutups of the pipes. If this is too low, there will be no clarity of tone. If it becomes too high, the pipes will sound as if they were spitting and screaming. With the right amount of pressure they can be voiced with open toes and will speak naturally, producing a fresh sound. It is almost like a jigsaw and certainly a great joy when things start coming together. The instrument is standing in an ideal position on the gallery, allowing a lot of space above. The depth of the case was reduced by putting the pedal pipes in their original position at the back. Thus they form a wall which pushes the sound forward into the main body of the church. This effect is immensely valuable, particularly for the higher stops which are placed next to the pedal stops.

The Mixture is a fine example for the sound mixing and melting together. It has a some-what crude repetition: both choruses jump back an octave on c'' and yet this is hardly noticeable when the full organ is played. Given the few stops, this instrument excels itself in combining a truly grand sound with a multitude of delicate colours.

Translation: Konstantin Reymaier


Wolfgang Karner
Gottfried Sonnholz - biographical notes

Gottfried Sonnholz was born about 1695 in Warmbach near Hirschberg in Silesia . At some stage or at least before 1720 he was called to Vienna by the Ferdinand Josef Römer (baptised 14th May 1656 - d. 29th May 1723). At this time Römer was building a new large instrument for the Cathedral Church of St. Stephens in Vienna (II/P/32) which was to go on the West-end gallery. In 1723 Römer died at the age of 67. His will was published on June 1st and did not leave everything to his son Johannes Ferdinand Tobias. Workshop tools were to remain with Sonnholz, at least until the cathedral organ was finished. On November 1st of 1724 Sonnholz married Römer's widow, Eva Rosina Römer (ca 1688 - 8th November 1753) and now took over the workshop as well as being in charge of the cathedral organs. Soon after, he took on the instrument of St. Michael's in Vienna , too. On December 7th 1725 he was granted Viennese citizenship. He developed his own style and built a number of instruments, some of which were named in a document supporting his application for the position of imperial organ builder in 1733. Unfortunately or rather fortunately, he was only offered the position of an assistant which he promptly declined. Thus he was able to continue his work as a highly respected organ-builder in Vienna , enjoying numerous commissions both in the city and beyond. 1742 he bought the Golden Lamb, a handsome property in what is today the fourth district of Vienna. The house was destroyed by fire in 1759. Sonnholz rebuilt it and was granted a three-year tax exemption. In 1776 he handed back the charge of the cathedral organs and closed down his business. On September 3rd 1781 he finished his life, aged 86. He was buried in the new crypt of St. Stephen's. He left at least four children, none of whom took over as organ-builders.

Sonnholz hardly ever signed his instruments. Thus we can only make ascriptions supported by documents of the time and comparisons. So far we know about 30 new or extensively rebuilt organs. Large instruments were built by him in 1732 for the Abbey Church of Melk, 1739 for Austria 's main pilgrimage place Mariazell, and 1751 for the Church of St. Peter in the centre of Vienna .

Translation: Konstantin Reymaier



Specification :    > > > > >>


Photos :

Wien, Malteserkirche      Wien, Malteserkirche      

Wien, Malteserkirche - Sonnholz-Orgel             Wien, Malteserkirche - Sonnholz-Orgel

Wien, Malteserkirche - Sonnholz-Orgel     Wien, Malteserkirche - Sonnholz-Orgel

Wien, Malteserkirche - Sonnholz-Orgel      Wien, Malteserkirche - Sonnholz-Orgel      Wien, Malteserkirche - Sonnholz-Orgel

Wien, Malteserkirche - Sonnholz-Orgel     Wien, Malteserkirche - Sonnholz-Orgel 

Wien, Malteserkirche - Sonnholz-Orgel     Wien, Malteserkirche - Sonnholz-Orgel

Fotos: © Wolfgang Karner


EL  CD 062