Boys have been singing at the court in Vienna since the 14th century. In 1498, more than half a millennium ago, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I moved his court and his court musicians to Vienna. He gave instructions that there were to be six singing boys among his musicians; the boys came from different parts of the Holy Roman Empire. Historians have settled on 1498 as the foundation date of the Vienna Chapel Imperial (Hofmusikkapelle) and in consequence, the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Until 1918, the choir sang exclusively for the imperial court, at mass, concerts and private functions, and on state occasions.
Musicians like Heinrich Isaac, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Johann Joseph Fux, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Antonio Caldara, Antonio Salieri and Anton Bruckner worked with the choir. Composers Jacobus Gallus and Franz Schubert were themselves choristers. Brothers Joseph Haydn and Michael Haydn, members of the choir of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and frequently sang with the imperial boys’ choir.
In 1918, after the breakdown of the Habsburg Empire, the Austrian government took over the court opera, its orchestra and the adult singers, but not the boys’ choir. Josef Schnitt, who became Dean of the Imperial Chapel in 1921, turned the Vienna Boys’ Choir into a private instituion.The former court choir boys became the Wiener Sängerknaben (Vienna Boys’ Choir); the imperial uniform was replaced by the sailor suit, then the height of boys’ fashion. There was not enough money to pay for the boys’ upkeep, and the choir started to give concerts outside of the chapel in 1926, performing motets, secular works, and - at the boys’ request – children’s operas. The impact was amazing. Within a year, the choir performed in Berlin (where Erich Kleiber conducted them), Prague and Zurich. Athens and Riga (1928) followed, then Spain, France, Denmark, Norway and Sweden (1929), the United States (1932), Australia (1934) and South America (1936). Since 1926, the choir has clocked up close to 1000 tours in 100 different countries.
Today there are 100 choristers from 30 different nations between the ages of ten and fourteen, divided into four touring choirs. Between them, the four choirs give around 300 concerts and performances each year in front of almost half a million people. Each group spends nine to eleven weeks of the school year on tour. They visit virtually all European countries, and they are frequent guests in Asia, Australia and the Americas.
Together with members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the men of the Vienna State Opera Chorus, the Vienna Boys’ Choir maintains the tradition of the imperial musicians: as Hofmusikkapelle (Chapel Imperial) they provide the music for the Sunday Mass in Vienna’s Imperial Chapel, as they have done since 1498. In 2012, the choir participated for the fifth time in the New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Mariss Jansons.
The choir’s repertoire includes everything from medieval to contemporary and experimental music. Motets and lieder for boys’ choir form the core of the touring repertoire, as do the choir’s own arrangements of quintessentially Viennese music, waltzes and polkas by Lanner and Strauss.
Both the choir and the Chapel Imperial have a long tradition of commissioning new works, going back to Imperial times, when composers like Mozart, Haydn, or Bruckner wrote for the ensemble. Austrian composers Heinz Kratochwil, Balduin Sulzer, Wolfram Wagner, and Gerald Wirth have written works for today’s boys. Benjamin Britten composed a vaudeville which could be performed on tours, and Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin wrote her ‘Land of Sweeping Plains’ for them. The Vienna Boys’ Choir performs major choral and symphonic works, sometimes as part of the Hofmusikkapelle, sometimes with other orchestras and men’s choirs. They are regularly asked to supply soloists for large choral and orchestral works, such as Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. In recent years, they have performed with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Berlin, the Oslo Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Over the last decade, the choir has worked with, among others, Pierre Boulez, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Kent Nagano, Seiji Ozawa, Christian Thielemann, Franz Welser-Möst, and Simone Young. The choir also takes part in opera performances at the Vienna State Opera, the Vienna Volksoper, and the Salzburg Festival. Choristers appear as three boys in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Recently, a soloist sang the part of Oberto in Handel’s opera Alcina at the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Marc Minkowski.