The George Bragg Library

The Pied Piper of Wien
By George Bragg
Published in The Choral Journal, September, 1972

 

"Wien, du Stadt Meiner Traume"

"Vienna, you city of my dreams", wrote a Polish gentleman who fell in love with that remarkable "center of life" on the Danube.

It is not the sparkling metropolis of bright facades of the Nineteenth Century. It has not even the same exteriors of the 1930's. But the heart is still very much the same, and the soul of music throbs as devotedly as it has through the gradual crescendo which was begun almost 500 years ago by the inspired Maxmilian I, newly returned from the influences of the Brabants and the Burgundian Court of the Netherlands.

Vienna has lured renowned musicians to its musical environment by the dozens. The unique fact is that of all the world-famous musicians associated with Vienna — Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner. R. Strauss, etc. — only Schubert was Vienna-born. It was the environment; music, as a life-pattern and philosophy which attracted so many to come to share in its potency of creativity. That spirit still exists, and some of its institutions reflect the Viennese abiding interest in matters musical. Although Vienna boasts of its great Vienna State Opera, and the "finest of the great", the Philharmonic Orchestra, its oldest musical institution is the Vienna Boys Choir, housed since World War II in the Augarten Palais, a beautiful palace built by Maria Theresa.

In 1498, Emperor Maxmilian I, decreed that a chapel should be established, patterned essentially after that of the Brabants of the Netherlands. Its purpose: to provide music for the Hofkapelle, The Imperial Chapel. As was the case at that time in the major courts and chapels of Europe, the instrumental musicians and choristers came from the music schools of the Netherlands, which was the leading country in the "new music" — a superiority which they maintained for a century.

This chapel became the center and catalyst of the musical life of Vienna, and ultimately of all of Austria. From the first choirmaster, George Slatkonia, (1456-1522) who was also bishop, excellence became the standard. Through this remarkable institution came such names as Gluck, Mozart, Schubert, Bruckner.

At the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, the royal patronage ceased for many of Vienna's established traditions, among which was the Imperial Chapel with its choirboys and orchestra. Out of the cultural and social chaos came a "Pied Piper'', a new founder, an innovator of rare ability and insight — disguised as a priest — the rector of the Imperial Chapel, Father Josef Schmitt. It was he who translated the patronage of the Monarchy into modern merchandising and packaging of Art — and made it work.

Economic difficulties were enormous at first. Fortunately, Rector Schmitt was wealthy in his own right, as were many of his personal friends, who encouraged him in this effort of keeping alive the flame of the idea of the Chapel and the institution for choirboys of Vienna. He did not spare his personal fortune in the least. Those who know, say that it is not possible to estimate what this one man expended in money and energy to make this part of Austria's heritage live.

Concerts and touring were started as experiments . . . luckily for youngsters all over the world, they worked. With no exception, this is the one boychoir of the world which has inspired more organizations, and more attempts at organizations like it, than any other group in history. The Vienna Boys Choir is principally responsible for most of the resurgence of this form of choral art in the Twentieth Century.

To build a flexible program which would allow musical tours during concert season and school term, Rector Schmitt developed a boarding situation for 11 months of the year. It was felt that the proven method of a boarding school was the only practical method of insuring that the choristers obtained the necessary musical training. Rector Schmitt believed that only through discipline and logical education, combined with musical talent, was it possible to achieve good performances.

After the death of Rector Josef Schmitt in 1955, Dr. Walter Tautschnig, was elected by the Trust or Foundation of former choirboys, to become the director of the Institute. Dr. Tautschnig, himself, was a choirboy and during his university days, served as prefect and later tutor at the school. Today, it is quite common to find most of the school's staff of choirmasters and tutors made up of former choirboys.

The same year that he was elected director, Dr. Tautschnig secured the services of Professor Ferdinand Grossmann of Vienna, who was famous throughout Europe for his work with voices. Professor Grossmann served as chorus master for the Vienna State Opera, and at the Academy, whose chorus he founded. Professor Grossmann trained both the choirmasters and the choirboys of the Vienna Boys Choir, while also filling the post of Kapellmeister of the Imperial Chapel, the most revered post in Vienna's hierarchy of musical positions. His legacy of stewardship has blessed generations of singers. His death in 1970 was a great loss to the world of music, and the world of Boychoir lost one of its most magical "Pied Pipers. He once told me that his success as a singing teacher was undoubtedly the result of his having experimented and found out for himself how the voice worked and functioned in a healthy state and with beautiful sound.

At Augarten Palace, the Vienna Choir Boys live, and work to perfect themselves in music.Thirty part-time teachers participate in the educational program which accommodates an average of 113 choirboys (88 concert boys, 4 groups of 22 each, and 25 preparatory). At Augarten, the Choir lives for 8 months, then in the summer they spend their holidays on the shores of the beautiful Worthersee. Each boy has a month's vacation at home each year. Visits are allowed at other times.

When a boy is accepted into the Vienna Choir's touring group, he becomes the total responsibility of the Institution. All food, clothing, and education is assumed by the Foundation for the Choirboy's time as a singer. Upon vocal change, the boy may "retire" to a lodge on the Palace grounds, where, at present, about 40 former choirboys live who attend regular public schools as day students. This is a major opportunity for some hoys who come from small towns or villages of Austria. They may remain at the lodge for as many years as they have sung in one of the touring groups. The incredible Dr. Walter Tautschnig carries on the work passed to him. He is himself great, and the right person sent at the right time to do the job. He is diligent, perceptive, untiring, and uncompromising with standards. His work as a builder and an administrator is preparing the way for even greater achievements for his beloved "Sängerknaben".

His business acumen is remarkable, his knowledge precise, and his devotion complete. This makes him a very unusual Pied Piper — but that he is, for by his gifts and stewardship of management and operation he is preparing the way for hundreds of choirboys to be trained in the years ahead, affecting as he goes, the direction of his nation's future.

George Bragg, "The Pied Piper of Wien," Choral Journal 12 (September 1972): 16, 17. © 1972 by the American Choral Directors Association, P.O. Box 6310, Lawton, Oklahoma 73506-0310. U.S.A. Used by permission.

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