The Texas Boys Choir
In the Fall 1958 issue of 'Inside SLIC', the publication of the Service Life Insurance Company of Fort Worth, Dorothy Harrison gives an in-depth view into the history and inner workings of The Texas Boys Choir. This article was published almost a year after the choir was moved from Denton to Fort Worth. In the article Dorothy Harrison describes a choir already renowned worldwide and alludes to the achievements yet to come. The article, with photos, is reproduced below.
TEXAS BOYS' CHOIR
THE VOICE OF YOUTH HERALDS THE WORLD...
by DOROTHY HARRISON
When the barbarians first swept down the steppes of Russia and into the threshold of Europe, they observed one phenomena with bewilderment. Though their warring spirit took its toll, their cruel, brutal behavior was confronted with another behavior totally alien. Many of the people whom they sought to conquer seemed impervious to attack. What was their secret? What magic did these people . . . their "subjects" exorcise that they could not be subdued?
A practical, ignorant, but not stupid people, the barbarians . . . troubled with feelings of envious admiration . . . gradually discovered that these people gazed for long and frequent periods at objects held within their hands or placed directly in front of them.
What magic did these objects hold . . . that the people who should flinch and beg for their lives . . . instead, quietly, indomitably, heroically, steadfastly held to life?
Again, a practical people, they decided to test these objects. What would be the quickest way to assimilate this magic? Through the stomach . . . of course. So the Huns began eating books --devouring them so they could meet these people on their own terms.
Perhaps our phrases today stem from this historical fact or legend . . . "hungry for knowledge" . . ."Lincoln ate up all the books he could lay his hands on . . .", etc.
When Pope Gregory I sent missionaries to England to convert the Anglos and Saxons, whom did he send? Warriors? Digni- taries? It was St. Patrick, together with 40 singers.
More recently . . . who has won the thundering applause . . . over- whelming ovation and gratitude of the Russians . . . the youth, Van Cliburn . . . the concert pianist, who has today become one of the great cultural ambassadors of the United States to the world.
In Fort Worth an internationally fam- ous group has become one of the cul- tural representatives . . . not only of Fort Worth . . . Texas . . . but the United States as well . . . the Texas Boys' Choir.
Integral to the choir is music . . . music of all kinds, forming a backdrop for the true func- tion of nurturing and stimulating a gradual growth of understanding of other peoples . . . of the universe to which the boy is born . . . for the "way" of the Texas Boys' Choir is that of the humanitarian. It may be that a few of the members will become great musicians . . . but just as truly others will choose the fields of law, medicine, ministry, teaching, etc.
There are many boy choirs in the world, but most are affiliated with a church and therefore sing primarily sacred music. There are relatively few concert boy choirs which produce music of all kinds for all situations.
One of the most famous boy choirs of all times is St. Paul's Boys' Choir of London, England, with a history dating back to the times of Alfred the Great.
The Texas Boys' Choir is patterned after the Vienna Boys' Choir which was founded by Maximillian the 1st. In 1498, Maximillian set up a school to provide music in the Imperial Chapel. The only purpose of the Boys' Choir was to sing for the royal family each Sunday. From the membership of this choir came such great musicians as Mozart, Schubert, Haydn and many others.
Although there are five independent boys' choirs in the United States, the Robert Mitchell Boys' Choir of Hollywood, Columbus Boys' Choir, Princeton, New Jersey; Warren Boys' Choir, Warren, Pennsylvania, Boystown Choir; and the Texas Boys' Choir, the latter stands unique for two reasons.
No other boys' choir in the United States trains as many boys as does the Texas Boys' Choir nor does any other have as many resources. It is interesting to note that though the number of boys in the Vienna Boys' Choir approximates that of those in the Texas Boys' Choir. . . about 150 boys . . . the annual budget of the Vienna Choir normally totals $100,000 while that of the Texas Boys' Choir is sufficient to train only around 30 boys per year.
When a boys' choir assumes the size of either the Texas or Vienna Boys' Choir, the works which may be performed are unlimited . . . of gigantic proportions, such as the major work, Lord Nelson's Mass by Joseph Haydn which the Texas Boys' Choir will interpret during a concert this year.
While the boys spend many hours per week rehearsing this serious project, if you were to presume that all effort was being concentrated on this great work, you might be startled to hear some fine evening as you pass St. Ignatius Academy, 12th and Throckmorton in Fort Worth, where the boys rehearse, the frolicking tones of Thumbelina or the enchanting strains of the Inch Worm emanating from the building.
What's more if you were to steal into the building to try unobtrusively to catch a glimpse of what lies behind the singing, you'd soon find how keenly the ears of the boys and the choir director are attuned . . . for shortly the serious, rapt faces of the boys would turn from their concentration on the choir director's movements and expressions to peer out the door into the darkness of the corridor, and very shortly thereafter the choir director would appear and very graciously invite you to join the group. You regretfully depart . . . hoping you haven't disturbed the smooth functioning of an intent, well-disciplined corps of musicians . . . a boy's choir.
How serious is each boy about his work with the choir and how sincere is the appreciation and love which each boy has for the director and founder, George Bragg, is revealed in the many anecdotes which the parents relate.
No boy wants to incur the displeasure either of Bragg or the "Maestro", Szelenyi, the associate director.
One little nine-year-old reported five minutes late for his 6:15 rehearsal. He was greeted with: "All the boys were late tonight . . . but you were later than all the rest. Be here tomorrow night promptly at 6 p. m." The admonition was accompanied with a stern, reproving look.
The following evening when his parents were driving him to rehearsal, the boy glanced at the clock on the dashboard . . . a good ten minutes fast . . . and saw it read 6 p. m. Shortly after he announced that he really didn't feel like going to choir practice. When he was in the midst of explaining he didn't feel very well, his eyes strayed to the CBS clock. "Why, it's only 5:49!" he gasped. "I won't be late after all!"
Apple pie and ice cream is normally a welcome treat for any growing boy. Another familiar and homely example of human virtue is the habit of some, who, when they sink blissfully into a tub of hot water counteract by lustily bursting into a shattering shower of tones.
Choir boys, however, can prove paradoxes. One such boy, returning from choir rehearsal, was told that he'd have to go to bed early and that after he had bathed, a choice piece of apple pie and black walnut ice cream awaited him. Except for an occasional TV commercial, quiet reigned supreme for the next 15 minutes. To a mother silence can become eloquent. She found the boy sitting in a quarter-filled tub of tepid water with a mimeographed sheet of paper propped between the hot and cold water faucets. The only sound was an occasional mumble. A choir boy's sense of hearing becomes acute. Some sound betrayed her presence and when he saw her, he said: "Mom! I've almost memorized this new song which we started tonight. Will you check me on it?"
Then there was the boy who upon being told he sounded like another Caruso turned with a beguiling and trusting look to his mother and asked: "Mom, is that good?"
During choir rehearsal boys soon learn that the code of a gentleman is a must and that mischieviousness is not condoned, nor is inattention, off-key singing, etc. Most learn through trial and error . . . first the error and then the thump on the head either by pencil or thumb, accompanied by the disapproving look and a cryptic remark of mending one's ways.
Small wonder then that members of the Texas Boys' Choir are known wherever they go not only for their singing but for their gentlemanly manners and their immaculate appearance.
Music is integral to any boys' choir . . . to the Texas Boys' Choir. Behavior and appearance form part of the fabric woven into the greater concept toward which the Choir works . . . that of helping to mould humanitarians.
Language, history, geography, observations of other peoples' cultures through travel and study, explorations into the fields of science, appreciation of the great art forms through the ages, music, painting, sculpture, writing, and appreciation of the beauty of the immediate world in which we live . . . the full-blown flower sheltering the delicate, winsome bud . . . these yield infinite treasures to the sensitive receptivity of the boy . . . the "gifted" boy who has also been gifted with wise and understanding counseling so that he may realize for himself and others the meaning of the "gifts" or the "talents." Such is the world in which he moves and grows . . . the boy of the Texas Boys' Choir.
Who is this boy of the Texas Boys' Choir? Where does he come from? He may come from a poor, rich, middle-class family; his parents may belong to the professional class, business, leisure or laboring class; he may be Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, etc. Only the infinite knows where the seed of talent is planted. It is man who must uncover and cultivate.
Generally, it is the school and the church which recommends the boy for a try-out.
Auditions are held twice a year, in September and January. The applicant must be between eight and twelve years of age, must have good health, good grades and a good voice. During each audition the boy is given a preliminary try-out. Together with his report card, the applicant must submit three letters of reference. If he passes the first test, he is given a second in which his sense of rhythm is more thoroughly explored. This tryout determines to which musical group he will be assigned.
There are four musical groups within the Texas Boys' Choir organization: the Preparatory, Intermediate, Second Advanced and First Advanced.
Kinesthetic exercises stemming primarily from studies in folk dancing occupy much of the time of the student in the Preparatory group. This, implemented with the study of other countries and the customs of other people, serves to place music on an international basis.
Although most of their activities are confined to thorough study of solfege, sight reading and vocal technique, the Intermediate and Second Advanced Groups have programs which allow for some participation in public performances.
Serving literally as the representative of both the Texas Boys' Choir and the City of Fort Worth is the First Advanced Group . . . the Concert Group.
Members of the first Advanced Group are most unusual. To begin with, their scholastic record must be outstanding. They spend a minimum of eight hours per week rehearsing. Normally, their schedule is from 6:15 to 8 p. m., Mondays through Thursdays. But as a public performance approaches, practice may be extended to Friday and Saturday morning and afternoon.
The other groups rehearse immed- iately after school from 4:30 to 6 p.m., Monday through Wednesday for the Preparatory and Monday through Thursday for the Intermediate and Second Advanced.
Tuition for the choirboy is $45 per semester, which may be paid on an installment basis. A few scholarships are available.
When the boy performs with the choir, or when he steps out with the group to enjoy a musical, opera or in public he is required to wear:
grey flannel trousers, black shoes and socks, a stiffly starched white short-sleeved shirt; his pockets must contain a black comb and white handkerchief. The maroon or blue jackets which the boys wear during performances are provided by the choir.
How does one take a polyglot group of youngsters, having in common a good voice and an indefinable personality potential and mould them into an understanding, sensitized choir singing on a professional basis?
Elemental is the first step . . . that of preparing the boys physically. They must be taught correct posture, proper breathing and in the course of their development, various exer- cises.
Patience and clear thinking help to prepare even the 8 or 9 year old intellectually. They must learn theory of music, history of music, and must learn to sing in a foreign language. Latin or German are not foreign to these boys . . . for they learn very soon to sing in these languages as well as their native tongue, English. And what a warm glow the boys create when they sing in the mellow idiom of Old English.
Quality upon quality of their good voices is developed . . . but what about that indefinable personality potential? What is the feeling of an alumnus for his college? How was it developed? How are strong bonds of attachment and affection created? Through unity of purpose, through association with one another, through understanding of their director, their choir mates, their earnest enthusiasm for their works . . . thus is created a feeling of brotherhood . . . of sharing and working as one toward a challenging high ideal. And as one, through a projection of the world's music and the gay rendition of everyday happenstance, they permeate a depth of emotion and translate a height of spiritual awareness.
The repertoire of the Texas Boys' Choir includes compositions from the pens of Bach, Handel, Haydn, di Lasso, Lotti, Martini, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Brahmns, Verdi and Kodaly. Among the major works are: Haydn's Lord Nelson's Mass, Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, Bax's Fantasy on Polish Carols, and Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols. Members of the Choir have performed during Catholic and Protestant services, in operas such as Tosca, Carmen, La Boheme and in the theatre. Their theatrical productions are sometimes interspersed with such numbers as: "Pecos Bill," "Blue Shadows on the Trail," "Cool Water," "Wagon Wheels," "My Buddy," etc. Last spring the Texas Boys' Choir sang the world premier of Bartolomeo Bonifacio, a choral study of a boy soprano with music by Paul Peck and lyrics by Jerry Powell and Paul Peck. The work had been commissioned by the Choir in 1957
According to George Bragg, little or nothing has been contributed to the boy choir field from the modern composers of America. He states: "We felt a compulsion to do something immediately so that in years to come the zenith of our civilization would be represented in musical form through the medium of boy choir, as were the heights of the Baroque and Renaissance." The commissioning and performance of the work, Bartolomeo Bonifacio, is one of the first steps in this direction.
The Texas Boys' Choir is the intellectual brainchild and spiritual concept of George Bragg, its director. Known originally as the Denton Civic Boy Choir, it was established March, 1946, in the city of Denton, Texas. Members included boys from Denton, Ft. Worth, Dallas and surrounding environs. Auditions were held in both Fort Worth and Dallas. It is interesting to note that as many as 50 youngsters commuted from Fort Worth, but only seven from Dallas. These seven, however, remained faithful with the Choir until they could no longer sing when their voices changed.
With the growing stature of the Choir and the interest expressed by people from a widening territory, it was thought expedient to find a more central location for the home of the Texas Boys' Choir.
Since both businessmen and parents of Fort Worth had evinced such a sincere interest in the Choir, it was decided a year ago, September, 1957, to make Fort Worth the permanent home of the Choir.
The organization is non-profit and is dependent upon funds received from interested persons, including guarantors, who contribute annually $250.00 and up, sponsors, $100.00 to $250.00 .and patrons, $25.00 to $100.00. In addition, bequests may be willed to the Fort Worth Boy's Choir Foundation, Inc. All bequests, gifts, and contributions are exempt from Federal and State taxes.
The rewards of a boys' choir are lasting and profound. These can be reflected in the life of the individual boy, in a growing sense of fulfillment by the parents, in a continuing realization by its musical directors of a spiritual humanitarianism manifest in the singing and behavior of the smallest boy on the community of peoples . . . locally, nationally, and internationally . . . and continuing through time . . . space.
What lies in the future for the choir boy might be reflected in the lives of prominent men of today and yesteryear who were former choir boys. Of composers, Bach remained a choir boy until he was 15 years old, and Franz Liszt until he was 18. Vice President Richard Nixon is a former choir boy. So was the actor, Burgess Meredith, now deceased. Dr. William Hassler, director of the Fort Worth Children's Museum, was a choir boy. Chief counsel and vice president of Service Life Insurance Company, Jack Heinemann spent many years singing with a boys' choir.
Although the rewards of a boys' choir are lasting and profound, to the indi- vidual boy, who spends long hours in memorization and performances, the rewards can be immediate and socially satisfying. As troopers of the enter- tainment world they have enjoyed such rare experiences as entertaining and being entertained at Sun Valley, Salt Lake City, Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Houston, New Orleans, Mobile, Washington, D. C., Philadelphia, New York City and Cincinnati.
The Choir has traveled more than 50,000 miles through 25 states and Mexico. It has become associated with the Southwestern Artists Service of Dallas. It has appeared over major radio networks, including a coast to coast broadcast over the National Broadcasting Company and the DuMont Television Network. It televised with Loraine Day and Johnny Johnston at the Polo Grounds in New York City, where the boys were the guests of the New York Giants. Last December they appeared with Pat Boone on TV in New York. By special invitation the group sang for the Salt Lake City Tabernacle Choir and received as a gift from its director an arrangement made especially for the boy choir of the famous Latter-Day Saints hymn, "Come, Come Ye Saints."
They have been entertained on the rustic ranches of the West and on the extravagant estates of the East. They have attended teas, buffet suppers, receptions and banquets and known the thrill of the applause of an audience of 20,000 people and the intimacy of private concerts.
In their travels they have come to know many of the great personages of the concert and entertainment world among whom are Martha Graham, Ted Shawn, Charles Laughton, Robert Shaw, J. Spencer Cornwall, Don Gillis, Salvatore Baccaloni, Frances Yeend and Frances Magnes. The boys look upon the privilege of knowing personally such outstanding persons as one of the blessings derived from their choir work.
And what of the man who helps guide the destiny of these youngsters? An expressive person, he has concentrated his life on interpreting life through the medium of the arts . . . drama and music.
As a former announcer and music director for an NBC outlet in Charlotte, N. C., George Bragg produced a minimum of 13 shows per week . . . this when he had not yet reached the age of 18. He studied under Dr. Wilfred C. Bain who was head of North Texas State College and whom George describes as a "fabulous choral man . . . extremely energetic and talented." He has trained with the Vienna choirmaster, Romano Picutti, now deceased.
A former choir boy (with a concert boys' choir of Birmingham, Alabama, the Apollo Boys' Choir) he studied creative arts at the Plonk School, Asheville, N. C., and worked under the direction of Miss Josephine Holmes of the New London Players.
For two years he tutored the sons of two ranching families in South Texas and during this time he traveled 500 miles each weekend to direct the Boys' Choir at Denton. He conducted the Victoria Community Chorus of 120 adults, whose primary function was the singing of the Messiah at Christmas. He taught the Boys' Choir of Trinity Episcopal Church in Victoria and also served as a substitute instructor of music at St. Joseph's Academy. Two choirs at St. Barnabus Episcopal Church were directed by Bragg every Sunday. Finally he wound up directing five choirs and traveling more than 1,300 miles per week.
In 1955 Bragg founded and became headmaster of the Boys' School, a post he was to continue in until the Boys' Choir moved to Fort Worth.
His assistant musical director and accompanist is a young man who formally is known as Istvan Szeleny . . . but more affectionately among the pupils as "Maestro" or Pisth. A native of Budapest, Hungary, Szeleny is a graduate of the Royal Conservatory founded by Franz Liszt, one of the contemporaries and intimate friends of Frederic Chopin. The traditions of these two great masters have been carried on from this center of musical culture in Budapest. The "Maestro" studied at the Conservatory for twenty-one of his twenty-nine years.
Szeleny was formerly with the Children's Choir of Radio Budapest. He was a pupil of Kodaly, Daniel and Dohnanyi. Also of particular interest is the fact that Szeleny is trained both as a chemist and a lawyer.
Thus far this year, the Texas Boys' Choir is scheduled to sing at the Dallas State Fair, Oct. 4-5, 11-12, 18-19 at 5 p. m. in the Great Hall of State, to give a major performance in December and a musical show at Casa Manana next spring, an appearance with the Fort Worth Opera, as well as numerous concerts before clubs and national conventions.
Immediate goal of the Texas Boys' Choir is to have two traveling concert groups. Projected plans call for travel overseas . . . indeed, performances all over the world. This then is one of the finest cultural, educational, civic representatives of Fort Worth, . . . Texas . . . the United States . . . the Texas Boys' Choir . . . each boy of which is innately gifted . . . of superior intelligence who as he grows in stature is encouraged to face new and more difficult challenges . . . so that he may truly know self-realization . . . the exploration and continual development of talents which the infinite presence has given him to enrich his life and all life as he encounters it . . . the true humanitarian.
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