As eight hundred churchgoers stream down the wide stone staircases of the Royal Chapel, the blue caps of boys in the Vienna Boys Choir bobbing nearby are a signal. As if on cue, the camera-toting fans of the choir swarm about the grinning lads like seagulls over a steamship, to be photographed with the famous boys in their sailor suits.
These pint-sized singing ambassadors with celestial voices perform every Sunday at the 9:15 A.M. High Mass in the Austrian capital's Royal Chapel on the grounds of the former winter palace (the Hofburg). Unfortunately, only 60 of the 800 or so people who manage to get in on Sunday will actually see the 40 young choristers singing in person, for the choir is positioned way up in the church's highest loft and is virtually invisible. The boys can be seen, however, on the TV monitors in the church and then in the flesh after Mass in the courtyard. The longevity of their musical tradition is evident in their performances. They are also visible singing to packed houses in Austria and throughout the world.
Officially created by Emperor Maximilian I in 1498, the Boys Choir has been going strong for almost five centuries. Truly touching the heart, the choir's rendition of a Mozart or a Salieri Mass (or of some of the modern sacred works by Stravinsky, Krenek, and Heiller) is an exhilarating experience, and the glorious harmony of voices in the Agnus Dei and Kyrie is a masterful interpretation--done with as much simplicity and ease as a Strauss waltz or a folk song.
Who Are They?
So who are these warbling messengers of goodwill in white middy blouses? As the gold letters on their dark blue hats spell out, they are the Wiener Sangerknaben (Vienna Boys Choir). They come from everywhere and anywhere in Austria, regardless of their social status or religion, to live and learn in Augarten Palace. Set in a lush green park, the splendiferous baroque building houses sleeping quarters, study halls, practice rooms, archives, the house chapel (with organ), and a number of historically restored reception rooms.
Twice a year auditions are held, and those vocally talented and musically gifted boys who are chosen then begin a special two-year preparatory schooling. During this time, they receive a thorough education, with special attention paid to the theory and practice of singing, as well as instruction on one musical instrument. Then at about age nine, each boy takes the very serious final examination for entry into the Boys Choir Institute--an exam wherein musical ability is the decisive factor--after which he is either incorporated into the choir or discharged. When a boy is accepted into the choir and is awarded his first official uniform, he begins an exciting boyhood career together with a unique group of one hundred peers. All costs--for board, clothes, tuition--are borne by the Boys Choir Institute, which exists solely on its earnings from concert tours, records, television, and films (the boys have starred in five movies, including Walt Disney's Almost Angels). The institute receives no government subsidies whatsoever.
Purchased as a ruin in 1946, Augarten Palace and its neighboring building were painstakingly rebuilt, and during the next twenty years some new buildings were added. Everything that was run-down or bombed out after World War II was converted into dormitories and apartments; a kitchen,
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