An Historical View
of the
Wiener Sängerknaben

Part II

The Story of the Saengerknaben
by Emily Z. Friedkin

Entrance Requirements

Last year, for instance, there were three hundred applications for the three vacancies in the school. Preliminary examination selected twenty-six boys as probable candidates. After a three months' course to bring out their aptitudes and test their knowledge of the more difficult ecclesiastical scores, six boys, all equally fitted to join the choir, were chosen. The three neediest were finally granted the coveted places. All the boys attend the same public school four centuries of choirboys attended. In addition they enjoy two piano, two violin and eight singing lessons a week. Frequent rehearsals, singing in the Sunday and holy day masses and now, secular music practice, play-acting, consume their spare time.

So, as phenomenal as their accomplishments are, they become something natural in the light of their education. A chat with Father Schnitt is half that conviction. "Yes," he said, "there has also been much astonishment that they act as well as they sing and particularly that they portray love scenes so piquantly. I have been asked if I really approved. Truly, we don't want to take the boys away from life. Nor does their play-acting tend toward precocity. Our whole educational plan is towards a normal bringing-up, and so, in their dancing lessons, their partners are girls, mostly daughters of our friends. We have maid-servants and a house mother. As a result of this and of the full program of school and music study our boys are protected from the frequent baneful consequences of boys' schools.

"Only today the prefect came to me, disturbed because three of the older boys left the schoolroom which is on the ground floor, by means of the window. I felt that the censure of their instructor was sufficient - we had done the same when we were boys. For real offenses, of course, there is a penalty. It is the most grievous one we can impose upon our boys - the loss of an attendance at the Opera or National Theatre for which we usually receive a box of seats weekly. The boys attend in rotation, each attendance - each offense is checked off.

The Morale of the Boys

"I feel that our boys become better with their music practice - just as an old violin plays better because use has brought the molecules into closer union and harmony. The music acts as a soothing, refining influence which can be no less than a bulwark in manhood. But they aren't, you've noticed, frail, mischievous, namby-pamby lads. Our parish friends arrange outings for them - next Sunday, for instance, they will be taken in automobiles to the Prater where they can ride the scenic railways, the merry-go-rounds, they may shoot and even eat "hot dogs" - and get spoiled stomachs generally. They have worked, and now they may play. We don't want to turn out anemic ascetics. 'More joy' - that's the title of Bishop Kepler's book, and it is the motto of the modern priest.

"And when my charges grow older - if one of them falls in love at seventeen, he shan't be rebuked. His precepts, his ambitions will guard him from the usual excesses and humiliation," the Rector added.

And the boys reflect their guardian's genius for sanity and common sense, an untold beneficence, balancing their genius for music. It takes them out of that baleful dubious classification of child prodigies. But this conversation with Father Schnitt only half clarified the Choir's achievements, at once so perfect and so ebullient. Mozart played as he should be, which is as epochal as playing Shakespeare in style. Nor would my wonder abate, so perfect and of a piece was their work that it seemed hardly of this earth. The question kept posing itself, "How can these youngsters achieve this perfection, fathom genius?" It kept haunting, as things of rarest beauty do.

Months passed, and it was cherry time. Big, luscious cherries, indecorous mouthfuls, each one. You couldn't help commenting on them. My companion, a German and, typically, always quoting Goethe said, "Wie Kirschen schmecken, muß man Kinder und Sperling fragen." (How do the cherries taste? You must ask the children and the sparrows.) And, on the instant, I had the second half of the answer to that other question and exclaimed, "Yes, and you must ask the Saengerknaben to render Mozart. Only they, and the birds, presumably know that, too." How shortsighted the audience's wonder now seemed - but it couldn't be composed of Goethe, could it?

It seems hardly necessary to add that, in the Saengerknaben performances there is nothing immature, nothing childish or merely cute, that the performances reach beyond an adult perfection by virtue of the intense classical training and tradition of the choir. The deviation from ecclesiastical to secular activities is unique in the history of sacred choirs and it has already marked a golden milestone in the interpretation of Mozart, of Haydn, of Humperdinck. First in Vienna. Then the Choir had no difficulty earning its way. The capitals of Europe invited it to come, and conquer. And Europe, from northern Scandinavia to sunnier Italy and Greece, from France to Czechoslovakia, has gained in pleasure and appreciation of music. But the boys have not become so inured to touring that the adventure of their longest junket leaves them calm. All summer, in their camp in the Tyrolean Alps, they have been preparing, entranced and inspired by their new goal, their most extensive engagement. They will give their unspoiled best. They will be worthy of their Rector's precepts, worthy of Vienna.

For Vienna has a destiny. In a monarchy of sixty million people - Serbs, Slavs, Italians, Germans, Romanians, Hungarians and twice as many more folk each speaking their own language, it was not unnatural that the language of the country should be music. And Vienna became the world's musical capital.

A plethora of musical genius on its hands, Vienna has generously contributed its sons and its song to the vast world outside. Today this capital of a rump nation living dangerously, by its wits, struggling valiantly, is sending one of its most eminent musical products to enhance the beating of America's musical pulse, to amaze its musical intelligence, to capture its heart.

Particularly Mozart and Vienna were each other's fate. But even Vienna sometimes loses touch with Mozart and only adequate performances result. As for the rest of the world - conscientious conductors usually honor Mozart by omitting him from the repertoire.

The Saengerknaben Choir is indigenous to Vienna. Which is why, perhaps, it did not become defunct when the Dual Monarchy was shot to pieces in this obstreperous era of nationalism. For Vienna, whether the capital of the most brilliant monarchy of modern times, or the seat of power of the world's most truly socialistic metropolis, could not dispense with this, its unsurpassed institution of musical education. Vienna, may I remind you, is the city where two and two do not make four. They total, on the contrary, five; they total, among other things, the Saengerknaben. And Vienna, decried as merely glittering, witty, even trivial, has had the courage to be loyal to its musical institutions, giving them the incentive, in this hard modern world, of eking out their own livelihood. And by their adaptation, without loss of scruple or integrity, you shall know them.

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This page was last modified on 12 February 2005