Vienna Choir Boys
Vienna Choir Boys
The most famous youth choir in the world, the Vienna Choir Boys, celebrated its 500th year in existence in 1998. A holdover from the days of the Hapsburg dynasty in Europe, the Choir was once simply another jewel in the crown of a luxurious monarchy also known as the Holy Roman Empire. Yet with the emergence of Austria as a Republic after the end of World War I, the Vienna Choir Boys was similarly modernized. They began taking their characteristic sound, often described as “floating” and “angelic,” to concert halls around the world. They serve as a national symbol for Austria, and are a beloved tourist attraction in Vienna proper.
The Vienna Choir Boys, known in German as Die Wiener Saengerknaeben, was for much of its history known as the Court Choir Boys. It served a function at the court of the Hapsburgs, hereditary rulers of an Austro-Hungarian Empire that once stretched across much of Europe. The Emperor Maximilian I founded the Choir in 1498 by issuing a command for 12 boys to be summoned to the Court and trained as singers. Like their modern-day counterparts, they were probably 10 to 14 years in age and possessed a good ear for music and an excellent voice in the soprano or alto range. The Choir would sing at church services and for banquets at the palace. The introduction of such a custom was probably partly the result of Maximilian I’s 1477 marriage to Mary of Burgundy, since boys’ choirs had been the fashion in the courts of her land. It may have also been evidence of a series of reforms introduced by Maximilian I in religious music.
Since then, the Vienna Choir Boys as an institution has achieved legendary status for its rigorous training in pursuit of perfection. There is a demanding audition and if a boy becomes one of the handful accepted yearly, a preparation course begins at age seven or eight at its official boarding school. At age nine, candidates must pass a musical aptitude test, then train further for another year, “during which time they must prove that they not only are able to sing but can also socialize and get along with their comrades,” conductor Peter Marschik told the Detroit Free Press in 1984. The home of the Choir is Vienna’s Augartenpalais, the former Imperial Palace that was once home to the Hapsburg royal family. Built in 1600s, it houses the boarding school for past, present, and future Choir members. Once a boy’s voice has changed with puberty, they must exit the Choir, but can remain at school to finish their education up to the high school diploma level.
Vienna Choir Boys have gained renown not just for their singing talent but also for an ability to stoically endure a rather tough schedule for a youngster: the academic classes are demanding, including a great deal of foreign-language instruction, drama and stage
Members are selected by audition; enter official boarding school and begin preparatory classes at age eight; boys sing with choir until voice breaks.
Choir formed, 1498, in Vienna, Austria.
Addresses: Vienna Choir Boys, Augartenpalais, 1020 Vienna, Austria.
movement, and they must rehearse two hours a day afterward; families are seen only on the weekends. However, the Augartenpalais, the school’s home since the close of World War II, also boasts a skating rink and a swimming pool for the boys’ use, and they spend the summer months in an adjunct school located in the Tyrolian Alps.
Several famous names in classical music history have been associated with the Vienna Choir Boys. Composer Joseph Haydn sang with them as a child, but technically belonged to the choir of a famous Vienna church, the Cathedral of St. Stephan. Franz Schubert was also a member, but was reputed to be more interested in composing music than completing his schoolwork. Many famous European conductors of the past two centuries have also been members. Other renowned names, such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, have written works especially for the Choir, which also performs with the famed Vienna State Opera.
The Court Choir Boys changed its name in 1918 with end the of Austro-Hungarian Empire in the waning days of World War I. With the dissolution of the monarchy, the boys were at first all sent back to their parents. But the onetime rector of the imperial chapel, Monsignor Josef Schnitt, re-formed the Choir in the early 1920s and gave it its current name. The priest financed it with his own money, and devised the idea of putting the boys in little sailor uniforms, which was standard dress for upper-class children of the era. Decades later, the bestowing of this official costume to a new member is an illustrious ritual event.
In more modern times the training school for the Choir is funded by record sales and concert tours. There are actually four separate choirs of 25 boys each, so that some may perform in Vienna while others travel. One of Vienna’s most popular tourist attractions is the weekly Solemn Mass sung at the Hofburg Chapel at the Augartenpalais, and one choir stays at home to carry on a custom that has remained unchanged since 1498. Only in 1978 was the Choir banned, in a much publicized flap, from performing on Christmas Day. A parent whose son had been dismissed from the Choir allegedly caused a stir by calling this violation of Austrian child labor laws to the attention of the authorities.
Entry into the Choir gives the boys immense opportunity for travel, since concert tours are regularly booked at some of the world’s best known performance halls. They first sang in the Western Hemisphere in 1932, under Monsignor Schnitt’s guidance, and are required to travel in groups when on the road,they are never allowed to venture out alone. Sometimes a choir member’s voice will change while on tour, at which point he is discharged from his duties. Though he remains at the school, there is some difficulty in making this transition: “They’re touring. They’re singing. They’re special in Austria. Then suddenly they have to go back to being average boys,” the Choir’s tour director told a Chicago Sun-Times reporter in 1968. “That’s why we only let them give their first names to interviewers and don’t let them think they’re stars.”
The Vienna Choir Boys are esteemed for their stage presence, which seems to confound anyone with the slightest acquaintance with boys of that age. After reviewing a 1980 performance, Detroit Free Press music critic John Guinn wrote that they “sang with an enthusiasm and polish that was quite disarming…. Best of all, they never pushed their voices, never resorted to the kind of yelling and hooting that characterizes so many boys’ choirs.” Guinn concluded by bemusing that “boys born in this wild century could so successfully carry on a tradition dating back nearly 500 years says something.” Yet it seemed that as the choir neared its 500th anniversary, popular tastes in classical music had changed. New York Times writer Alex Ross, reviewing a 1992 Carnegie Hall performance, noted that they performed scenes from operettas in costume with English dialogue, and wondered if “at times they merely exploited the audience’s hunger for cuteness and precociousness.”
A new artistic director of the Vienna Choir Boys, Agnes Grossmann, came aboard in 1997 and launched a series of reforms. She and other management instituted shorter concert tours, a less demanding schoolday schedule, a new repertoire featuring works by modern composers, and, most famously, a decree that beginning in 1998 girls would be allowed in the primary school for musical education, they would not, however, be allowed into the Choir itself. Grossmann also oversaw the formation of an independent choir for Vienna concerts alone, whose singers could attend the school simply as day boarders.
Chicago Sun-Times, February 25, 1968.
Christian Science Monitor, June 4, 1974, p. 5C.
Detroit Free Press, January 22, 1980, p. 10A; December 9, 1984.
Detroit News, December 13, 1978.
New York Times, December 15, 1983; January 16, 1992; December 19, 1992.
Vienna Boys Choir
VIENNA BOYS CHOIR
Formed on the order of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1498 to sing at his court, the Vienna Boys Choir (Wiener Sängerknaben) is one of the world's oldest performing arts institutions. The choir's rigorous training, clear sound, and technical prowess are renowned, and through its annual international tours, the Vienna Boys have become cultural ambassadors for Austria.
The choir has a long and colorful history stretching back more than five hundred years. It has produced numerous first-class vocalists, violinists, and pianists who helped shape Vienna as one of Europe's musical capitals. Joseph Haydn sang with the court choir in the eighteenth century, Franz Schubert wrote some of his first compositions for the choir in the nineteenth century, and numerous composers, including Senfl, Fux, Salieri, Haydn, and Bruckner, wrote music for it.
When the Habsburg dynasty collapsed in 1918 at the end of World War I—and with it most court institutions—it looked like the choir might disappear. But it was refounded in 1924 by Joseph Schnitt, who believed that the boarding school method of training choristers was the only way to keep alive the famous Viennese musical tradition.
Until the 1920s the choir had performed only at the court. Its refounding marks the beginning of the choir's modern history of touring and a system of musical education that brought it to the attention of the world. By the end of the 1930s the choir had performed all over the world. Since 1932 it has made more than fifty tours of America.
The Vienna Boys Choir is actually a group of more than 100 members between the ages of ten and fourteen, divided up into choirs of 24 members each. Two choirs make annual tours, presenting some 300 annual performances for more than 500,000 fans. Tours generally last about three months each. The other two choirs stay in Vienna studying. Members live in the historic Augarten Palace, studying academic subjects in the morning and music in the afternoon.
The Vienna Boys Choir has made dozens of recordings, cutting across numerous styles and genres of classical and popular music. The group has worked and recorded with some of the twentieth century's best conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, and Sir George Solti. It has performed for world leaders, and appeared frequently on television. The choir has also contributed to a number of film soundtracks, including Primal Fear (1996) and The 13th Floor (1999). Despite all its international activity, the choir still sings weekly mass at Vienna's Hofburg Chapel, as it has done since 1498.
By the early 1990s the Vienna Boys Choir had become something of a "tourist trap," performing more than it should to earn money for its operations. Musical standards and training had slipped since the 1970s, its training methods were out-of-date, and the choir had lost its recording contract.
But the choir took steps to revitalize itself, modernizing its curriculum, cutting down on the number of performances, and expanding its repertoire. It has embarked on multimedia projects, found new collaborators, and participated in the creation of children's operas, and has worked to update its image for the twenty-first century.
The Best of the Vienna Boys Choir (Delta, 2000).
F. Endler, Vienna Choir Boys (Vienna, 1987); K. Lorenz, A History of the Vienna Boys's Choir (Sussex, England, 1998).