I recently purchased a concert programme provided by the sponsors of a March 26, 1936 concert given in the Coliseum at Evansville, Indiana, by the Wiener Sängerknaben (Vienna Choir Boys). At that point in time, the world was much different, and in some important respects, so was the "World's Most Beloved Choir."
The Story of the Saengerknaben
From their dormitory windows in the former Imperial Palace they see the city of Vienna spread beneath them and, beyond the house and treetops, the Wienerwald, that lovely wood on the metropolis' outskirts whose fame the music of Johann Strauss has helped spread around the earth. But the vista of the Saengerknaben now extends beyond the eye's ken. For months they have been seeing America - America which was discovered in the same decade their own institution was founded by the Hapsburgs, America, fifty-five of whose cities have invited them to present their inimitable offering of song this winter.
Theirs is the romance of paupers who have become princes. And in an improbable enough atmosphere. "Yes, I have often been told that after hearing the boys, people don't want to hear Mozart by anyone else," said the Rev. Father Josef Schnitt, officiating priest of the former Imperial Chapel, who has charge of the choirboys. He received me in their palace residence, the quarters that had been especially redecorated for Crown Prince Rudolf of whom the world knows only so much rumor of his purple fate. And these lads, whom you will see, not as serious faces rising out of starched cassocks, but bright and a bit jaunty in their trim sailor blouses, come almost exclusively from the lower social strata - sons of over-large, proletarian families, children relinquished by their parents often because of financial distress. But they are musicians to the core, these boys from eight to fifteen, and they have passed the stiffest of entrance tests for admission to this unique choir.
Looking out from their top-story windows of the palace they've little time to daydream, these youngsters whom the Swiss call the "Songbirds from out Vienna" and whom Pope Pius XI most recently blessed for their "voices as flutelike and sweet as those of angels of paradise." These encomiums are not exaggerated for they are princes of song and it is not unseemly that they dwell in the Emperor's castle which was the pulse of a powerful monarchy for hundreds on hundreds of years. Today it lies, sprawling its wings over the heart of the city, a monument to the past which threatens to be outrivaled by the newer, even larger complexes of housing buildings which socialistic Vienna has erected for the people. But the Saengerknaben rescue even more than a remnant of its former glamor. They owe much to the Empire and the Hapsburgs who were their patrons. And they are, as it were, the posthumous gift of that Empire to the world.
Twenty-two youngsters, in their white sailor blouses - an emblem of the internationalism of their art, too - are the envoys of the former royal residence. But they are more than that. They are the living symbol of the best that old Austria produced in art and scholarship. And today they are an incontrovertible sign of the courage of the new Austria, earning their own living in this patronless age and maintaining their artistic integrity wholly the while. Perhaps the broad palace stairs, up which they climb many times a day - for the castle boasts no elevator - the high-ceilinged salons and, most of all, that view over the city to those wooded hills on the Danube's banks have been their inspiration as they have to those immortal giants Beethoven and Mozart. But Fate, which dispersed unhappy Austria's crown jewels, elected, felicitously, to save this gem of monarchial tradition.
Like the famous Sistine Choir, the Saengerknaben was established because the Church forbids women singing sacred music. The Viennese Choir had its inception in 1498 and was attached to the Imperial Chapel adjacent to the Royal Residence. For more than four centuries it fulfilled its ecclesiastical and scholastic functions. Then it disappeared with the Hapsburg monarchy at the close of the World War. But it was rescued from the general debacle six years later. For without it the classical masses cannot be rendered correctly, without it Vienna lacked its finest, most thorough music school. For two years Father Schnitt met the expenses out of his private funds, clothing, feeding and educating the boys. With the exhaustion of those monies, the Choir launched out to support itself, turning to secular music. It was a felicitous innovation, a highlight in Vienna's musical season, a veritable renaissance of Mozart. I saw them then, six years ago, and something of a white, breathtaking wonder held me spellbound, nor have the years effaced the impression of that memorable event. Mozart's "Bastien and Bastienne" they played, in costume, with simple piano accompaniment. With that intangible skill of genius, the fruit of inspiration and tradition, the Saengerknaben performed Mozart perfectly. Bastienne is a love-sick maiden, and then the cunningest of coquettes. There is all the precious fencing between the lovers - deftly, delicately performed. No stout tenor, no immobile soprano to disillusion. Rather, on the stage, figurines of uncommon rococo porcelain, matchlessly joyous, inimitably serene, consummately mannered. Nor was there a false note. But that, as the story of the choir's training and tradition shows, is a matter-of-course.
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This page was last modified on 12 February 2005