The Wiener Sängerknaben (Vienna Boys' Choir or Vienna Choir Boys) is a choir of trebles and altos based in Vienna. It is one of the best known boys' choirs in the world. The boys are selected mainly from Austria, but also from many other countries.
The choir is a private, not-for-profit organization. There are approximately 100 choristers between the ages of ten and fourteen. The boys are divided into four touring choirs, named after Austrian composers Bruckner, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, which combined perform about 300 concerts each year before almost 500,000 people. Each group tours for about nine to eleven weeks.
The choir is the modern-day descendant of the boys' choirs of the Viennese Court, dating back to the late Middle Ages. The choir was, for practical purposes, established by a letter from Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg on 7 July 1498, instructing court officials to employ a singing master, two basses and six boys. Jurij Slatkonja became the director of the ensemble. The role of the choir (numbering between 14 and 20) was to provide musical accompaniment for the church mass Additionally, the Haydn brothers were members of the St. Stephen's Cathedral choir, directed at the time by Georg Reutter II who used this choir in his duties for the imperial court which at the time had no boy choristers of its own.
Over the centuries, the choir has worked with many composers, including Heinrich Isaac, Hofhaimer, Biber, Fux, Caldara, Gluck, Salieri, Mozart, Franz Schubert and Bruckner.
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Now that that's out of the way, I'll tell you about my personal experience as a member of the world famous boys choir.
It was in 1978 when my family and I left our home in Romania to escape the tyranny of Nicolae Ceausescu. Being a Hungarian minority in Romania was not advantageous in any way, in fact it was quite the opposite. The Ceausescu regime did everything it could to make life as difficult as possible for any of the ethnic minority groups, especially the Hungarians.
Even though life was difficult in the communist regime, we had a decent life. Both of my parents were musicians in the Oradea Symphony Orchestra, my father was principle flute and my mother was 2nd viola 1st chair. As a result, I spent most of my Monday evenings in Oradea's concert hall, watching the orchestra perform. My parents submerged me into the world of music since I could remember. We often had foreigners at our house for parties... Italians, Russians, Germans, etc... what ever orchestra or ballet was in town, members often ended up at our house for get-togethers. I was always surrounded by artists, but as much as I loved the company, I never really wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be an athlete. I was drawn to sports like a fish to water, and I spent much of my single numbered years either playing soccer or roller skating. Sometimes I even did both. It might sound silly, but I became such a good skater, that anything I could do on foot, I was able to do wearing skates.
When we moved to Austria, we spent our first year inside a refugee camp, about 30 minute drive outside of Vienna, in a quiet little town called Traiskirchen. The camp was a culture shock to this 10-year old boy. My little brother was fortunate, he was only 4, and no one messed with kids that young, but a 10-year old, that was another story. All of a sudden we were living inside a gated community of people from all over the Eastern world. We were surrounded by people from India, Iran, Turkey, Russia, Armenia, Bulgaria, Nigeria and many other places. Some of these folks were nice, others weren't. You had to watch your step in the camp, and stick with your own kind, for there was strength in numbers. It wasn't unusual for a rumble to break out between Turks and Armenians, Romanians and Hungarians, etc... My parents did their best to keep me away from that environment, so they had me audition for the Vienna Boys Choir.
I didn't want to. By this time I'd made friends in the camp. I had my little gang of Hungarians I ran with, and I wasn't interested in some ninny choir thing. All I wanted was to be like every other kid. I just wanted to hang out and play soccer. It was the one uniter in the camp. But seeing as how I was 10, I had no choice in the matter. I figured I'll audition, they won't take me and that'll be the end of that. Well... it was just my luck that I was accepted!
As initially scary as the refugee camp was, being in the Vienna Boys Choir was even more terrifying. As I'd mentioned, I was 10 years old, didn't speak German, and this was the first time away from my parents for extended periods of time. The choir was a boarding school, so we lived at the palace from Monday morning until Saturday at noon, when we went home for the weekend only to return on Monday, and do it all again. For a frightened 10-year old, who couldn't communicate with anyone, my family might as well have been on the other side of the planet. Six days with out them was an eternity, but... eventually things got better.
My first few days were the roughest. I got into a fight on my first day at the small soccer field (there were two of them at that time). I was a good soccer player. In Romania I always played with the older kids, so my competition was very tough. Well... a few of the boys in the choir didn't take kindly to the fact that I showed them up, so they decided to teach me a lesson. As scared as I was of the prospect of having to fight 4 of them, it was a blessing in disguise. Once I bloodied the leader of the group, the other kids left me alone and from that moment on, no one else bothered me.
To help me adjust to my strange surroundings, the choir directors brought in a tutor, a beautiful blond Hungarian woman, whose job was to help me learn German. I don't remember her name, but I remember having the biggest crush on her and very much looked forward to her visits. Not only because she was hot, but I had someone with whom I could speak using my mother tongue.
The palace was absolutely beautiful with all kinds of modern (for the time) facilities. I've never seen such a beautiful pool, and the gym? For a sports enthusiast like me, it was heaven. I also found the food to be excellent, but looking back, I'm not sure if that's true, or I remember it to be excellent because the food at the refugee camp was that awful. Either way, I enjoyed the meals. Our sleeping facilities were also pretty cool for a 10-year old. It was almost army barracks-like, in that it was a large room with marble floors, and it had two rows of beds, about a dozen beds on each side of the room. I had to use slippers because the floor got pretty cold at night, and the last thing you wanted to do if you had to get up in the middle of the night, was to step on that cold floor.
Our days were very regimented. I remember having to wake fairly early in the morning, hitting the showers (which was also a big room with at least a dozen showers in it) and then it was off for breakfast. We all ate as quickly as possible, so we could get a little game time in, before we were off to class. In the mornings we had our reading, writing arithmetic, and in the afternoons we had our music classes. Like I said, our schedules were made out to keep us busy from morning to night. Every so often we would travel somewhere in Austria, mostly not too far from Vienna, to perform. I couldn't leave the country for any performances since I wasn't an Austrian citizen. However... I'm fairly certain that the junior members never got to travel outside the country. We were limited to performances mostly around Vienna.
I was surrounded by all of this famous musical history, and any downtime I had, I spent on one of the soccer fields. I could not have been more uninterested with the prestige that surrounded me. All I cared about was the athletic competitions. I didn't matter if it was soccer, rope climbing, broad jumps... what ever we did, I excelled at. Probably because unlike with just about every other activity, when it came to sports, I didn't have to speak any language to understand what was going on.
Our music teachers were some of the best in the world. I didn't appreciate it then, but to this day I still remember some of the lessons I was taught about how to sing properly. I could not have been easy to teach, because for most of my time there, I couldn't understand what they were saying to me, so there was a lot of gesturing going on, pointing to body parts and making exaggerated movements to show what I needed to do. Naturally everything we were taught was classical, but when it came to the piano, I entertained some of the boys by playing boogie-woogie jazz. I loved the big-band era of genre and I was much more interested in Bennie Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, than I was in Chopin and Stravinsky.
Meanwhile, I still had to spend my weekends and holiday times in the refugee camp. So... I kept as quiet as possible about where I was during the week. The last thing I wanted the kids in camp to know was that I was a choir boy.
I'll never forget my last day with the Vienna Boys Choir. My father picked me up early, and we left before the other boys, so we could catch the train to Traiskirchen. I was very excited to see him, and couldn't wait to leave for Bad-Ishl for summer vacation. It's a quiet little town in the Alps, where my mother had a gig playing with the summer orchestra. As we were walking along the road leaving the choir's property, my father told me the news that I wasn't returning in the fall. It's funny because I didn't really want to be there in the first place, but now that I found I won't be returning, all I wanted was to be back in the fall!
Luckily I was 11-years old, and I had the attention span of an 11-year old. My father took me out for ice cream, which was awesome! After about a week's stay in the hospital for low blood sugar, I ended up joining my mother in Bad-Ishl for the greatest summer of my young life, and the Vienna Boys Choir became just another memory.
At my current age of 47 I still occasionally think back on my time as a member of the world's most famous choir, and even though I didn't appreciate it then, I am very thankful to have had the experience. I was incredibly fortunate to have had some of the finest music teachers in the world, even if it was often hard for me to understand them. To this day I'm still both an athlete and a musician. It's funny... I never wanted to be a musician, yet... here I am... I've written hundreds of songs, scored music for feature film, short film, and corporate videos. I've acted in musical theater, have played in many orchestras growing up (both jazz and classical), performed with marching bands, attended Duquesne University on a music scholarship as a classical piano major/voice minor, lived the life of sex/drugs/rock n roll, all while having won scoring titles in soccer, and won power-lifting competitions and marathons. I will now embark on my biggest journey of em all... a trip to circumnavigate the globe, and I can credit much of the discipline it took and still takes to excel in everything I do, to my one school year in the world famous Vienna Boys Choir. Life is funny that way.
Story by: Attila Domos
Here are the boys performing the music of Joseph Strauss, with former music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons.