Boys have been singing at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor since the early 15th century. In 1498, more than half a millennium ago, Emperor Maximilian I moved his court and his court musicians to Vienna. He gave instructions that there were to be six singing boys among his musicians. Historians have settled on 1498 as the foundation date of the Vienna Hofmusikkapelle and in consequence the Vienna Boys Choir. Until 1918, the choir sang exclusively for the imperial court, at mass, at private concerts and functions, and on state occasions.
Musicians like Heinrich Isaac, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Johann Joseph Fux, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Antonio Caldara, Antonio Salieri and Anton Bruckner worked with the choir. Composers Jacobus Gallus and Franz Schubert were themselves choristers. Brothers Joseph and Michael Haydn, members of the choir of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and frequently sang with the imperial boys’ choir.
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. The Vienna Boys Choir owes its survival to the initiative of Josef Schnitt, who became Dean of the Imperial Chapel in 1921. Schnitt established the boys’ choir as 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. Funding was not enough to pay for the boys’ upkeep, and in 1926 the choir started to give concerts outside of the chapel, performing motets, secular works, and - at the boys’ request – children’s operas. The impact was amazing: Within a year, the choir performed in Berlin (where Erich Kleiber conducted them), Prague and Zurich. Athens and Riga (1928) followed, then Spain, France, Denmark, Norway and Sweden (1929), the United States (1932), Australia (1934) and South America (1936).
Today there are around 100 choristers between the ages of ten and fourteen, divided into four touring choirs. The four choirs give around 300 concerts and performances each year in front of almost half a million people. Each group spends nine to eleven weeks of the school year on tour. They visit virtually all European countries, and they are frequent guests in Asia, Australia and the Americas.
Together with members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera Chorus, the Vienna Boys Choir maintains the tradition of the imperial musicians: as Hofmusikkapelle they provide the music for the Sunday Mass in Vienna’s Imperial Chapel, as they have done since 1498. On 1 January 2012, the choir participated for the fifth time in the New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Mariss Jansons.
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, waltzes and polkas by Lehar, Lanner, and Strauss.
Both the choir and the Hofmusikkapelle have a long tradition of commissioning new works. Austrian composers hk Gruber (himself a former chorister), Heinz Kratochwil, Ernst Krenek, Balduin Sulzer, and Gerald Wirth have written works for the choir.
The Vienna Boys Choir performs major choral and symphonic works, sometimes as part of the Hofmusikkapelle, sometimes with other orchestras and men’s choirs. They are regularly asked to supply soloists for large choral and orchestral works, such as Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Mahler’s Das klagende Lied. In recent years, they have performed with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Oslo Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Recent guest conductors include Pierre Boulez, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti (honorary member of the Hofmusikkapelle), Kent Nagano, Seiji Ozawa, Christian Thielemann, and Simone Young.
The choir also takes part in opera performances at the Vienna State Opera, the Vienna Volksoper, and the Salzburg Festival. Choristers appear as three boys in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Recently, a soloist sang the part of Oberto in Handel’s opera Alcina, conducted by Marc Minkowski.
Children’s Operas are an important part of the repertoire: The boys love to act. The choir started performing operas in the 1920s, beginning with classics such as Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne, Weber’s Abu Hassan or Haydn’s Der Apotheker. Benjamin Britten wrote the vaudeville The Golden Vanity for the choir, and conducted its premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1967 in the presence of HM The Queen Elizabeth II.
In the last decade, the choir has successfully 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, were all shown at Vienna’s Musikverein. Gerald Wirth’s 1398 – Der Bettelknabe (The begging boy), a story set in medieval Palestine and Europe, premiered in 2010. A new opera set in the 4th century AD is currently in production.