Boys have been singing at the Viennese court since the 14th century, and in 1498 - more than half a millennium ago - Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I moved his court and his court musicians to Vienna. Historians have settled on 1498 as the foundation date of the Vienna Chapel Imperial (Hofmusikkapelle) and thus the Vienna Boys Choir. Until 1918, the choir sang exclusively for the imperial court, at mass, concerts, private functions, and on state occasions.
Throughout history, such noted composers as Heinrich Isaac, Philippe de Monte, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Johann Joseph Fux, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Antonio Caldara, Antonio Salieri, Christoph Willibald Gluck, and Anton Bruckner have worked with the choir. Jacobus Gallus and Franz Schubert were themselves choristers, and brothers Franz Joseph and brother Michael Haydn were members of the choir of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, but frequently sang with the imperial boys choir as well.
In 1918, after the breakdown of the Habsburg Empire, the Austrian government took over the court opera, its orchestra and the adult singers, but not the boys’ choir. Josef Schnitt, who became Dean of the Imperial Chapel in 1921, turned the Vienna Boys Choir into a private institution. The former court choir boys became the Wiener Sängerknaben (Vienna Boys Choir); the imperial uniform was replaced by the sailor suit, then the height of boys' fashion. The choir started to give concerts outside the chapel in 1926, performing motets, secular works - and at the boys' request – children’s operas. The impact was amazing. Within a year, the choir had performed in Berlin (led by Erich Kleiber), Prague, and Zurich. Athens and Riga followed (1928), then Spain, France, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (1929), the United States (1932), Australia (1934), and South America (1936). Since 1926, the choir has gone on more than 1000 tours to 100 different countries.
Today, the Vienna Boys Choir consists of 100 boys between the ages of ten and fourteen, from dozens of nations, divided into four touring groups. Each group spends nine to eleven weeks of the school year on tour. Between them, the four choirs give 300 concerts and performances each year before almost half a million people. They visit virtually all European countries, and are frequent guests in Asia, Australia, and the Americas.
The Vienna Boys Choir has a close association with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Together with members of the orchestra and the men of the Vienna State Opera Chorus, the choir maintains the tradition of the imperial musicians: as Hofmusikkapelle (Chapel Imperial) they provide the music for the Sunday Mass in Vienna’s Imperial Chapel, as they have since 1498. The choir has often participated in the New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Mariss Jansons. Members of the choir also frequently perform in productions of Mozart's The Magic Flute, most recently at the Salzburg Festival.
Repertoire The choir’s repertoire includes everything from medieval to contemporary and experimental music. Motets and lieder for boys’ choir form the core of the touring repertoire, as do the choir’s own arrangements of quintessentially Viennese music like waltzes and polkas by Lanner, Lehár, and Strauss.
The Vienna Boys Choir performs major choral and symphonic works as part of the Hofmusikkapelle, and with other orchestras and adult choirs. They are regularly asked to supply soloists for large choral and orchestral works, such as Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. Both the choir and the Chapel Imperial have a long tradition of commissioning new works, going back to Imperial times, when composers like Mozart, Haydn, and Bruckner wrote for the ensemble. Benjamin Britten penned a vaudeville which could be performed on tours, and Austrian composers Heinz Kratochwil, Balduin Sulzer, Wolfram Wagner, and Gerald Wirth have written works for today’s boys, along with Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin, who wrote her Land of Sweeping Plains for them. Over the last century, the choir has worked with some of the greatest conductors of the genre, for example Böhm, Furtwängler, Karajan, Mitropoulos, Toscanini, Walter, Bernstein, Boulez and Harnoncourt. In more recent times, the boys have been invited to collaborate with Mariss Jansons, Zubin Mehta, Marc Minkowski, Riccardo Muti, Kent Nagano, Seiji Ozawa, Christian Thielemann, Michael Tilson Thomas, Franz Welser-Möst, Simone Young and many others. The choir also regularly takes part in opera performances at the Vienna State Opera, the Vienna Volksoper, and the Salzburg Festival.
The boys love to act, and children’s operas are an important part of the repertoire. The choir started performing operas in the 1920s, beginning with classics such as Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne, Weber’s Abu Hassan and Haydn’s Lo Speziale, later branching out to contemporary works. The boys appeared in the world premiere of Benjamin Britten's The Golden Vanity at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1967.
Over the last two decades, the choir has produced a number of new operas. Gerald Wirth’s The Journey of the Little Prince and The Tablet of Destinies, an opera based on the Babylonian myth of Anzu, and Raoul Gehringer’s Moby-Dick, based on the novel by Herman Melville, have all been performed at Vienna’s Musikverein. Gerald Wirth’s Der Bettelknabe (The begging boy), a story set in medieval Palestine and Europe, was first presented in 2010, and twice again in subsequent seasons at the choir’s own concert hall, MuTh.
World Music, Crossover Projects and Recordings
One of the choir’s goals is to introduce the boys to as many different styles of music as possible, so since the 1920s, the choir has collected music from all over the world. The choir has also commissioned and produced a number of world music projects, like Silk Road, Between Worlds, Inspiration, and Pirates!. As Gerald Wirth explains, "We do not claim to play ‘authentic’ world music; instead, we create something from the original sources that is our own. We want to be faithful to the source in the sense that we treat it with respect."
The Vienna Boys Choir has been recording its music since 1907; the boys have appeared on practically every major label. In 2015, the choir signed a long-term partnership with Deutsche Grammophon. Their first joint project was a hugely successful Christmas CD, Merry Christmas from Vienna. The next recording, Strauss For Ever, was released last year.
The Choir on Film
The choir’s Silk Road project inspired director Curt Faudon to make a film about the globetrotting choristers. For over a year, Faudon followed the boys' life in Vienna and on the road, filming them at work and at play, on and off stage, meeting and working with artists from Central Asia, China and India. The resulting 90-minute film is a clever blend of documentary, road movie, costume drama and music, with stunning footage from all across the world and an unusual, off-beat soundtrack which has the boys singing in Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, Japanese, Latin, Marathi, Maori, Savo Finnish, Tajik, Uyghur, Urdu, Uzbek, and German.
Faudon's second film on the choir, Bridging the Gap, had a limited cinema release in 2014. In this film, the boys sing with an Apache medicine man, perform with an entire Indian village, and ham it up in a Peruvian train. In New Zealand they are adopted into a Maori tribe, via song. The third collaboration with Faudon, Songs for Mary, pays homage to the Virgin in 21 beautifully filmed segments.
The Choir School
The choir maintains its own schools. Almost 400 children and teenagers between the ages of 3 and 18 study and rehearse at Augartenpalais, a baroque palace and former imperial hunting lodge in Vienna. The choir runs its kindergarten - for both boys and girls - in cooperation with the city of Vienna, then continues its program for grades 1 through 4, providing an exceptional all-around education for boys and girls.
At age ten, the most talented boys are selected to join the Vienna Boys Choir and enter the choir’s boys-only grammar school for grades 5 through 8. All boys are assigned to one of the touring choirs. Academic lessons are taught in small groups. The school offers extracurricular activities ranging from all kinds of sports to attending a wide range of concerts, operas, plays, musicals and movies. The choristers are also encouraged to create their own projects; some form their own bands, others create short skits or films. All choir boys live in the choir’s well-appointed boarding school, with two to three boys sharing a room.
In 2010, the choir launched a new high school, for boys and girls grades 8 through 12. The school's unique curriculum was developed in conjunction with the Universities of Music in Vienna and in Salzburg; it is designed to help young singers find their voice, discover and develop their talents, and prepare for university.
Roughly a quarter of the school’s alumni go on to become professional musicians, conductors, singers or instrumentalists. Almost all continue to sing. There are two adult vocal ensembles made up entirely of former choristers - the Chorus Viennensis, and the Imperial Chapel’s Schola Cantorum, which specializes in Gregorian chant.
Development and Funding
The Vienna Boys Choir is a private, not-for-profit organization which finances itself largely through concerts, recordings, and royalties. The Austrian Ministry of Education and the State’s Art Department help fund special projects, such as the production of new children’s operas. Further development and projects depend on additional support derived from fundraising campaigns.
The POK Pühringer Privatstiftung, based in Vienna’s Palais Coburg, is the choir’s general sponsor. With its backing, the choir has been able to build its own on-campus concert hall to facilitate opera productions in particular. The hall, which was built to include the baroque gatehouse and the old wall of the Augarten park, opened in December 2012, with a joint gala concert by the Vienna Boys Choir and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The hall's name, MuTh, stands for “Music and Theatre”. MuTh serves the entire community of Vienna with a wide range of presentations, with a special focus on providing a platform for young performers.
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