- Lucas Beck / provided
- Vienna Boys Choir includes students from over 30 countries.
One of the oldest collectives of touring musicians returns to Oklahoma as Vienna Boys Choir performs at Armstrong Auditorium in Edmond Nov. 20. With a history spanning over 500 years, the choir unites 9- to 14-year-old performers from over 30 countries into one harmonious movement. A century of unprecedented international performances have brought the ensemble across the grandest stages of nearly every continent through the adventures of four concurrent, traveling groups.
Now it is a fixture not bound by a single, cultural ideology, but traces of the Vienna Boys Choir can be found amid the traveling court of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Dr. Tina Breckwoldt, historian and spokesperson of the choir, describes early allusions to the institution in correspondence of the Holy Roman Empire in 1496 and ’98. At the time, the choir represented a portion of a musical legion that accompanied Maximilian throughout his visits to smaller, allied kingdoms. Despite being tethered to the emperor, the musicians’ ancient endeavors entailed far more than a simple political purpose.
“There is a famous letter in which Maximilian urged he was ‘in need’ of his musicians,” Breckwoldt said. “He insisted his officials ‘make them come to [him] now.’ Because of this, we know they were more than just a propaganda tool. Maximilian was moved by the music more than any other entertainment. He felt the spiritual side of it.”
Amid Maximilian’s court were many of the world’s greatest melodic minds, serving as a catalyst for the development of Western music; among the choir’s members stood the likes of Franz Schubert. However, the ensemble would transition from a kingdom’s chorus to the world’s choir in the early 20th century. Following the choir’s disbandment at the end of World War I, the empathetic spirit of the group continued flickering as global disarray intensified. The choir was resurrected between 1924 and ’26, and its importance as a voice of peace grew quickly apparent through several European performances.
In the 1930s, Vienna Boys Choir made its first excursion to the United States, and acclaim followed it back home. The obvious demand of the choir has now led to multiple groups and numerous tours from Australia and Asia to North and South America. With the choir comes an aura that mends humanity.
“We are an educational institution that strongly believes in music as something that emotionally reaches everybody,” Breckwoldt said. “We want to equip the children of the choir with the tools to speak music and connect with people. They perform concerts that touch people, that make them move in a spiritual way.”
As a school, the choir adopts a curriculum similar to most schools in Austria. Students study familiar subjects like physics, history, physical education and, of course, music theory. The curriculum also includes one particular structural caveat.
Unbound by the typical, semester-driven school year, Vienna Boys Choir operates on three terms annually. The first terms are, for the most part, stationary and analogous to most schools, even those found in America. The third term is concerned strictly with international touring. The students enjoy an education focused on the locations of their concerts.
These concerts provide the students more than just an outlet for performance.
“In the two hours in concert with them, you kind of belong to each other,” Breckwoldt said. “The artists belong to the audience and the audience to the artists. It’s an incredible notion you can be thousands of miles from home and connect in a way that is only made possible through music.”
Though stationed in Austria, the choir itself is composed of children from different countries and cultures. Like a less bombastic international conference, the young men grow and learn with one another throughout some of their most formative years. The students form their own identities while building strong relationships with their peers. Almost passively, the children absorb ideas, discipline and ethics often unfamiliar to them just by proximity. Thus, their practice and craft becomes harmonious in more than just the literal sense.
“We as a species tend to band together,” Breckwoldt said. “In order for the choir to exist, it has to transcend borders, nationalities, religions and cultures. What maintains the choir are boys from 30 different nations that, even at a young age, are interested in making music together.”
A performance that can transcend borders conveys a feeling that does the same. Childhood and the shift from adolescence are universally inevitable. Within its concerts, the choir conveys notions of vulnerability, whimsy and resolve throughout classic and contemporary pieces. The music of the choir brings the audience closer to a pivotal stage of development, yielding a call back to days of wonder.
Regardless of any religious connotation, the idea that the daydreams of youth could be something tangible is among the choir’s greatest allures. Vienna Boys Choir offers an undeniably spiritual and comforting chord.
“The form of the boys’ voices will change with classical training,” Breckwoldt said. “With that change, there’s a hint of something that sounds incredibly ethereal. It’s like there’s this hint of someone transforming into a butterfly.”