In 1498, half a millenium ago, Emperor Maximilian I moved his court and his court musicians from Innsbruck to Vienna. He gave specific instructions that there were to be six boys among his musicians. For want of a foundation charter, historians have settled on 1498 as the official foundation date of the Vienna Hofmusikkapelle and the Vienna Choir Boys. The choir sang exclusively for the court, at mass, at private concerts and on state occasions.
Musicians like Heinrich Isaac, Paul Hofhaimer, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Antonio Caldara, Antonio Salieri and Anton Bruckner worked with the choir. Some were choristers themselves, such as composers Jacobus Gallus, Franz Schubert, and - as substitutes - the brothers Franz Joseph and Michael Haydn, and the conductors Hans Richter, Felix Mottl and Clemens Krauss.
In 1918, after the breakdown of the Habsburg empire, the Austrian government took over the court opera (i.e. the orchestra and the adult singers), but not the choir boys. The Wiener Sängerknaben owe their survival to the initiative and business acumen of Josef Schnitt, who became dean of the imperial chapel in 1921.
Today there are 95 choristers between the ages of ten and fourteen, divided into four touring choirs. During their tours, the boys visit virtually all European countries, and they are frequent guests in Asia, Australia and the Americas. They visit the USA and Canada almost every year. Every Sunday, with the exception of the summer vacations, the choir sings at Mass in the Imperial Chapel, as they have done since 1498. The choirís artistic director is Gerald Wirth. Norbert Balatsch, the long-serving chorus master of the Bayreuth Festival and the Vienna State Opera, is available for advice.
Their repertoire spans five centuries of music, it includes Renaissance as well as contemporary music. Benjamin Britten, as well as Austrian composers Heinz Kratochwil, Ernst Krenek and Anton Heiller have written works for the Wiener Sängerknaben. Britten wrote the vaudeville The Golden Vanity for them, and even conducted its premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1967. They toured China, Japan and Germany with a children's opera by Gerald Wirth, based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéryís The Little Prince. Wirth is currently writing a new opera for the choir.
In addition to their own tours and projects, the boys sing a number of concerts each season with menís chorus and orchestra, both in Vienna and abroad. This season, the boys sang Mozartís Coronation Mass in St. Peterís in the Vatican, conducted by Riccardo Muti. The choir is regularly asked to supply soloists for large choral and orchestral works, such as Britten's Chichester Psalms, Gustav Mahler's Das Klagende Lied or Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.
The Wiener Sängerknaben have their own school. Almost 250 children live, study and rehearse in the Augartenpalais, a baroque palace in Vienna. Beginning with kindergarten, the children (boys and girls) are provided with a complete musical and general education through the elementary grades. At age ten, the most talented boys are selected to join the choir and enter the choirís grammar school. All boys are assigned to one of the touring choirs. Academic lessons are taught in small groups of no more than 15 children. The school has a band, and offers extracurricular activities ranging from sports (baseball, judo, soccer, rollerblading, swimming) to attending (pop) concerts, operas, plays, musicals and movies. The choristers are also encouraged to create their own projects; a number of them write, act and direct short sketches about life at the school.
The school is proud of its alumni, many of whom go on to become professional musicians, conductors, singers or instrumentalists, in Vienna and throughout the world. Many others continue to sing; there are two male voice ensembles made up entirely of former Vienna Choir Boys, the Chorus Viennensis and the Imperial Chapelís Schola Cantorum. All former students retain a lifelong commitment to the arts.