Chamberfest: 500 years of music history travel with Vienna Boys Choir

The Vienna Boys Choir is performing in Ottawa on Sunday. Photo: Lucas Beck

In the middle of the 18th century a young boy was invited to sing in the Imperial chapel in Vienna. The young boy would go on to a rather famous career in music. His name was Franz Joseph Haydn.

About six decades later, another lad with a voice named Franz would be singing the music of Mozart and Haydn. His last name was Schubert.

This is the kind of thing you find out when you interview Dr. Tina Breckwoldt, the in-house historian of the legendary Vienna Boys Choir which will perform in Ottawa on April 7 in Dominion-Chalmers United Church.

The beginning of the choir is pegged to a letter from the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I on June 30, 1498 instructing officials to employ a singing master, two basses and six boys for the Imperial chapel (where they still sing Sunday mass every week) to provide the court with spiritual solace through music. But the choir might go back earlier than that, Breckwoldt said. There are indications that a boys choir was singing there in the 13th century.

“Maximilian was known for his travelling court” and so the choir would travel with him. Breckwoldt suggests that the boy singers were useful for the emperor, showing how cultured he was.

This is also true today. The choir is a thriving institution (and tourist attraction). There are now about 100 singers between nine and 14. The boys are split into four touring choirs which spend up to 11 weeks of the school year on the road. All told the four ensembles do about 300 performances a year across Europe, Asia, Australia, North and South America. 

ARTSFILE spoke with Breckwoldt and with Nathan one of the choristers travelling to Ottawa. His last name was withheld for privacy reasons.

Nathan comes from Christchurch, New Zealand. His older brother was in the choir and that was the impetus for him to join.

The 13 year old is now in his third year in Vienna and he is a first soprano and a soloist.

He got his start at a choir concert in Tokyo, Japan, about four years ago. He actually did an impromptu audition backstage for the maestro. He did a more formal audition later, met the standard and moved halfway around the world.

When he can, such as during school vacation periods, Nathan does go home, but for now he’s content with his busy life.

Nathan finds all forms of music interesting “but I have to say classical is my favourite.”

But while music is fun, it may not be his profession. He’s thinking he might like to be a pilot.

The Vienna Boys Choir incorporates other subjects along with musical responsibilities.

“We wake up at 7:30 a.m. We start school and go to 6 p.m. five days a week.” There are breaks and musical instruction in that day, he said.

Two hours a day is spent in choir practice and twice a week there is another hour of music theory instruction.

The school also does believes in allowing boys to be active so there are opportunities for sport, Breckwoldt said. For example, there are two soccer fields outside that are in constant use.

“They are encouraged to run outside every chance they can get. It’s a good balance,” she said. Nathan isn’t a big soccer fan. His sport, he said, is swimming.

This sounds a lot like the education provided by Anglican choir schools in England, but there are differences, she said.

“The repertoire is different and the kind of singing is different. We do bel canto, and (for example) the King’s College tradition is very ethereal. The Vienna Boys Choir divides into four (two soprano and two alto parts) and sometimes up to eight-part singing,” she added.

If a boy’s voice starts to change, the choir will accommodate. These boys sing second alto or they employ a vocal technique that allows for a higher tone.

“These are boys with a lot of experience in choral singing so they can really help the choir. We like to keep everybody with the group. The boys travel in the choir in Grades 5 to 8.”

After Grade 8, there is a high school program, but that age group does not travel, she said. The older school evolved because the boys wanted to continue singing. The high school also is co-educational.

The fleeting nature of a boy’s voice may hold part of the appeal of this tradition, Breckwoldt said.

“When a boy sings really well it is quite surprising because boys are meant to be playing football and being a boy. So when a boy gets up and sings a stunningly beautiful solo, it’s heart-rending. It makes you feel all warm and fuzzy.

“There is this state of grace that seems to surround the singing. It just grabs people, perhaps they are reminded of their own childhood,” she added.

Nathan has been to Canada before as a tourist. This will be his first visit as a chorister.

He knows about Beavertails, the museums and the Gatineau Hills. The choir also knows the uOttawa music professor and choral maestro Laurence Ewashko who was a choirmaster in Vienna in the 1980s and again in the late 1990s.

Nathan said he likes seeing different cultures in different countries. The boys do get instruction in the countries they visit so they can enjoy the experience, Breckwoldt said.

After leaving Ottawa, this ensemble will head to Japan for concerts. In the summer the singers take part in music festivals in places such as Salzburg, Austria. In the fall, another group hits the road to Asia and North America.

The Ottawa program is typical of a Vienna Boys Choir concert. It will be sung off-book for the most part and deliver an extensive list of music from Elton John’s Can You Feel the Love Tonight (from The Lion King) to four pieces from Henry Purcell’s  Come Ye Sons of Art.

Chamberfest presents The Vienna Boys Choir 
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: April 7 at 4 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.