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Exploring Music: Celestial Voices Vienna Boys' Choir: Merry Christmas

The MHS Review 391 Vol. 11 No.13 1987

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David M. Greene


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There is, in the town which bears my post-office address, an institution of higher learning committed to excellence, and am­bitious to be known as a citadel of the Liberal Arts, that has, in the past few years, spilled over into the rural valley where I am domiciled. On that part of the campus, thanks to the generosity of an elderly alum­nus, there has arisen a facility whose basic purpose is rumored to be the housing of the annual regional wrestling meets. Such events, however, occupy only one weekend out of any given year and con­tinue, perversely, to occupy other venues.

Meanwhile the facility has to pay for its upkeep, so it is used to demonstrate to the general public the true meaning of educa­tional excellence and the nature of the Liberal Arts. This is effected by the presen­tation there of various rock artists, the Lip­pizaner Stallions, televised prize fights, the Harlem Globetrotters, and faith healers. And the Vienna Boys' Choir--or Vienna Choirboys as they are known in the local vernacular.

The Vienna Choirboys go back (as a tradition, not individually!) to the time of Columbus. They represented the upper vocal ranges of the Hofmusikkapelle, the Court Music Chapel, i.e. the musical wing of the Holy Roman Emperor's court. The Holy Roman Emperor in question was Max­imilian I of Austria. He organized his chapel in Innsbruck, then moved it to Vienna with his court and the central government.

The reference books available to me on this broiling July Saturday afternoon are strangely reticent about the Sangerknaben after that. The Hofkapelle was not an uninterrupted institution, but a constant appears to have been the tradition that the boys were provided with an excellent education as a consequence of their membership. It is a fact that many subse­quently famous musicians took advantage of the benefits of joining up.

When the Empire came to an end in 1918. the Hofmusikkapelle was taken over by a branch of the Ministry of Education and still sings Sunday morning Masses in the Imperial Chapel. Though the Sangerknaben is regarded as part of it, that organization is essentially self-supporting. When you encounter a concert by the Vienna Choirboys, you will actually be hearing one of four such choirs, each of which tours for three months out of a year. The fees the boys thus earn go to pay for their upkeep and education.

The theory that the lanugage a singer speaks has something to do with the tim­bre of his or her voice seems also to apply to unbroken trebles. There are exceptions that prove the rule, but I am inclined to think that the Romance languages produce generally unattractive boychoirs. French choirboys, in my experience, tend to be acidulous, and most Italian treble choirs that I've heard sound like an incipient riot. Speakers of the Germanic languages (e.g. the English) seem to fare better, and the sounds these Austrian kids produce are celestial. (It will be noted that soloists are used in several numbers, but the tradition appears to be not to highlight them by nam­ing them.)

The program? It consists of a handful of old favorites and a lot of quite unfamiliar songs. A number of the latter are composi­tions by choirmaster Uwe Christian Har­rer and one Josef Doller, all in rather unassuming traditional style. There are carols in Dutch, Sicilian dialect, French, and impeccable English, as well as in Ger­man. (One of the last is by Michael Haydn.) Many of the songs are lightly accompanied by members of the Volksoper Orchestra, and in four the boys are joined by the adults of the Chorus Viennensis.

I conclude with a note on the inevitable opening number, Franz Gruber's Stille Nacht or "Silent Night." Everyone knows that the song was written when the village organ malfunctioned and music was need­ed for the Christmas service. Gri.iber scored his piece for soloists and choir in two-part harmony, accompanied by a guitar. The record informs us that the Choirboys sing the "original version." Indeed they do, but the accompaniment is for strings and a French horn. Throughout his life Gri.iber made other arrangements. Perhaps this is one of them.

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