The Vienna Boys Choir traces its history back to the 14th century and, until 1918, it sang exclusively for the imperial court, state occasions and church Masses. Today, it is one of the world’s most famous touring ensembles, with a repertoire that reflects its tradition yet embraces the music of our time.
When the Vienna Choir Boys perform at the Barre Opera House at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20, as part of the TD Bank Celebration Series, it will be in a program specifically chosen for the occasion.
“We want them to learn music in different styles,” explained Tina Breckwoldt, the choir’s spokeswoman, in a call from Vienna. “There’s an American theme going on in this program. It takes the boys on a journey through the Americas.”
Manuel Huber will conduct some 25 boys in “Journey Through the Americas,” featuring classics from Palestrina to Duruflé, American favorites from Copland to Bernstein, and even Disney film favorites. But there will also be folk music from the Americas and old Vienna — including favorites from Johann Strauss II.
“We always try to find pieces that fit a particular bunch of boys,” Breckwoldt said. “I think most of the boys like very rhythmical pieces. A lot of them like ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ (from Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’). There’s an Arapaho song, which they felt was quite curious.”
Historians have settled on 1498 as the foundation date of the Vienna Chapel Imperial (Hofmusikkapelle) and thus the Vienna Boys Choir. Throughout history, such noted composers as Mozart, Gluck and Bruckner have worked with the choir. Schubert was a chorister, and brothers Franz Joseph and 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.
Today, the Vienna Boys Choir is comprised of 100 boys between the ages of 10 and 14, from dozens of nations, divided into four touring groups. Each group spends nine to 11 weeks of the school year on tour. They visit virtually all European countries, and frequently perform in Asia, Australia and the Americas.
The choir maintains its own schools, where 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. At age 10, the most talented boys are selected to join the Vienna Boys Choir and enter the choir’s boys-only grammar school for grades five through eight.
“They come via very different routes,” Breckwoldt said. “The ideal for us would probably be a boy from Vienna who would come up through our primary school. They would have had four years of training, and in the fourth grade they would try out.”
Still, many apply from elsewhere in Austria, as well as from around the world.
“We invite them to audition, which means checking their voice for range, and above all, talking to the parents and the boys themselves to find out what their expectations are,” Breckwoldt said. “First and foremost, we are a choir who trains and educates the boys in our care. We are a school.”
First, there is a trial period.
“You know pretty quickly if they’re happy,” Breckwoldt said. “The most important thing, besides really wanting to sing, really wanting to work with their voices, is that they’re happy and at ease in the environment we offer.
“We don’t mind really very much what he already knows, what is important is that he has a good ear, that he has a good education,” Breckwoldt said. “You can pretty much train them.”
And that training is rigorous. In addition to traditional academic studies, the boys focus on ear training, sight-reading, voice training, theory and analysis, and instrument instruction. And there is music appreciation and history.
“Especially about music the choir is performing,” Breckwoldt said. “We’ve always had a broad repertoire. If you look back at programs from the 1920s, which is when the choir began touring on this scale, you will (find) operettas, singspiels, folk music and classics.”
This training must be working, as 25 to 30% go on to musical careers, including some on the opera stage. In the meantime, audiences worldwide enjoy the celestial voices of the Vienna Boys Choir.
jim.lowe @timesargus.com / jim.lowe @rutlandherald.com