A History of the Vienna Boys' Choir
by Kim Lorenz
A History of the Vienna Boys' Choir
Review: A History of the Vienna Boys' Choir by Kim Lorenz
Boyd Pehrson wrote (March 24, 2002):
One of the great boychoirs of the world, the Vienna Choir Boys, has distinguished themselves among musical groups performing Bach Cantatas. The choir's work in the Teldec series of complete Bach Cantatas is immense, and of fine quality. This is astounding considering the choir's normal tour schedule and educational commitments. The Vienna Choir Boys institute has thus ranked as one of the great performers of Bach's sacred works.
Reminded of their Bachian associations, I am posting my review of the Kim Lorenz book "A History of the Vienna Boys' Choir" (1998, Book Guild, Sussex England
This is the first book about the Vienna Choir Boys written in English since old Vienna Choir Boy Stephen Temmer's 1987 English Translation of Franz Endler's classic book on the Vienna Choir Boys. Author Kim Lorenz in this new work focuses on the history of the modern version of the Vienna Choir Boys institution.
I like the fact that Kim Lorenz titled this book "A History of the Vienna Boys Choir". Certainly, there are many histories that can be written about the Vienna Boys' Choir. Many, many individual histories could be written by directors, staff and choirboys. "A" history by Kim Lorenz has been developed and written from research of archives, reviews, newspaper and magazine articles and concert programmes.
This book is primarily a history of a vital period of the choir's modern emergence into the public spotlight. If there is a central balancing point of this book, and of the choir itself in its modern history, it is the quarter century period between 1924 and 1950. Indeed, only the first 12 pages of the book are used to tell us about the choir's previous 500 years of history. The rest of the book's 178 pages are used to tell us about the choir's emergence into the modern public spotlight; you know the "real" Vienna Boys' Choir we've seen on stage, not the Chapel Choir of the Hofburg. Interestingly, the book provides a strong statement that the modern existence of this choir, its quality and its reputation, all rely solidly on its reason for being... that is as a choir for the Hofburg Chapel.
Two great personalities of the choir- Rektor Joseph Schnitt and Ferdinand Grossmann are highlighted. Rektor Josef Schnitt revives the choir after the Hofburg Chapel singing is taken over by women after WWI. And then with every fibre of his will, and against monumental obstacles, Schnitt keeps the choir alive through gruelling tours, delicate negotiations, and imaginative vision. Several early tours are highlighted and discussed. During the years of WWII and Hitler's annexation of Austria and Austrian capitulation, the choir barely survives, its beloved Recktor Schnitt removed as an anti-Nazi sympathizer, Ferdinand Grossmann is appointed, and the boys are made to wear the Nazi swastika in an effort to "re-train" the choirboys and eliminate any anti-Nazi ideas from their school. Grossmann tries heroically to spare the boys and the institute from the ravages of the hateful regime of the National Socialist German Workers' Party. Kim Lorenz has managed to highlight tastefully what is probably the thorniest part of the Vienna Choir Boys' history- the Nazi take over of the choir school during WWII. Indeed her book is an apologetic for the goals of the choir school in spite of Nazi misuse of the choir.
The Vienna Choir Boys as an institution hardly have anything to apologize for during their misuse. They too were victims, made to wear the Nazi emblem out of force, and obey the Nazi rhetoric as were Jewish boys made to wear an emblem that singled out their religion and sent them to their deaths. I am here reminded of the recent film by Tim Blake Nelson called "The Grey Zone," which tells the dramatic story of the WWII Sonderkommandos- special squads of Jewish men who ushered others into undressing rooms and processed corpses from the No. 1 crematorium at Birkenau. Thus the moral dilemma of everything the Nazis touched, their corruption was absolute.
The Vienna Choir Boys School strived against madness. Towards the end of WWII, the number of choirs is reduced to one, and Allied bombings begin to blast away at what little security was left in the choir school. Grossmann collects the boys of the last lone choir and flees Vienna heading for the safety of the school's mountain retreat. As the Allies arrive, and Austria capitulates, Rektor Schnitt, having never given up hope, and tirelessly working to return one day, arrives back at the Institute. His boys are gone, and the choirs are scattered, and the remnants are secluded with Grossmann. An interesting conflict between the two men is relived under these circumstances, but it is eventually resolved, much to the benefit of the boys and the choir once again moves forward. Schnitt eventually is able to secure the Augartenpalais as a new home for the boys, and he also manages a deal that pays the rent for the next fifty years.
Kim Lorenz's history sort of stops there. She includes a brief account of post WWII activity, but the focus and balance of this book is the emergence of the Choir as a dynamic world renowned musical Institute, and the critical formative years including reorganization after WWII.
The research aspects of this book are not strong, Author Lorenz uses materials mostly available to the general public, newspaper reports, concert programmes, conversations with old boy choir members and the like. The writing is rather drab as well, and lacks the spark that Mr. Temmer's translation of Franz Endler's work has. This is a very interesting read of the facts at hand though. It would be most difficult to collect all the information on the choir that Kim Lorenz has compiled in her easy to read book. I was able to sit down and plough through it in one afternoon. Though drab in prose, the book is never-the-less an interesting read regarding Schnitt and Grossmann's conflicts, and the choir's woes during WWII. Also interesting are the early tours highlighted in the book. But that is were the interest ends. Those looking for a more personal evaluation of the choir's recent history are to find a better read in Franz Endler's work. Readers who want to know how boys are chosen for the choir, how that process has changed, what life at the choir school and on the road is like and how that has changed over the years will have to look to Endler.
Kim Lorenz's book has been promoted as a sort of scholarly work on the modern history of the choir. But this book has no index or footnotes. The one English book- the translation of Endler's work, is not mentioned in Lorenz's bibliography. So scholarship is not the strength of this work. It falls more within the Journalistic genre. I do recommend it for any fan of the Vienna Boys Choir, as it does tell us much about Schnitt's work. Rektor Schnitt emerges from the pages full of life. This we do not receive from Mr. Endler's superior work. I think for former choirboy and insider Franz Endler, the icon of Rektor Schnitt was so pervasive as to be somewhat taken for granted.
I highly recommend the Kim Lorenz book to all fans of the Vienna Choir Boys. It is over priced and difficult to locate. My copy cost a dear $37 US including shipping. There are several of pages of rare black and white photos of the choir not to be found elsewhere. It is inexpensively bound and pages are small- 5-1/2" X 9".
I also highly recommend Franz Endler's work translated into English by Stephen Temmer. It is beautifully written and is filled with photos. It is printed in 8 X 10 format and the binding is of highest quality- it is a real treasure. Copies of this book are nearly impossible to locate, I purchased my copy from a used bookseller in Wanganui New Zealand. The Endler book is worth the search to all true boychoir aficionados. (1987, J&V Edition, Wien, ISBN:3-85058-013-X)
Douglas Neslund wrote (March 24, 2002):
Thank you for that excellent summation, Boyd! I have the original Franz Endler in German, which comes (or came) with a small 33-1/3 recording which I have safely placed somewhere and now can't find!
Perhaps it is time for a really comprehensive and interesting compilation of it all into one volume, with all the pictures to be found elsewhere. Shall we?
Boyd Pehrson wrote (March 26, 2002):
[To Douglas Neslund] Thanks Douglas for your reply. I tried to send a response from the Yahoo Groups page, but it never posted for some reason. I probably hit "delete" instead of "send".
Anyway, I wanted to point out something about the history of the Vienna Choir Boys that we don't read much about. In doing background reading for my review, I read a history of the Hof-Musikkapelle from 1543-1867. Actually it was merely a list of all the paid singers and musicians at the Hof-Musikkapelle over a 325 year period. The book was written by Ludwig Ritter von Köchel in 1869 and re-printed in 1976. It is interesting to notice the list of soprano men of long standing years of service singing at the court. These are the falsetto and Castrati singers of the day. Their numbers appeared to increase, but their names are not necessarily distinguished from those of the boys. Among the listed names are Italians, yet the author warns that we cannot necessarily convey through this that these were always Castrati. Many of these singers also had short careers for what ever reasons- often only one or two years. The "Sopranisten" tended to be the highest paid among the singers- often earning two times the amount of tenors or basses. Also there is a number of "Frauen" and "Sängerinen"- female court chapel singers. The numbers of instrumentalists are large as well. The average size of the musicians and singers together as a group ranged in size between 37-72 members.This is hardly a One Voice Per Part situation. The numbers of Kapellsängerknaben alone averaged 16-18 boys. Sometimes the court's boys numbered 8-10 and other times 21 boys. Interestingly, the numbers of cantorei knaben- the chapel choir numbered seems greater in earlier years. For instance the breakdown of numbers for 1543-1564 are:
1543= 17 Kapellsängerknaben
1544= 19 "
1545= 10 "
1546- 1549 = 16 "
1553- 1558 = 24 "
1564- 17 Kapellsängerknaben
These very numbers almost mirror the current average of 21-24 boys in each choir of the Vienna Choir Boys to this day. The fact that the Vienna Choir Boys have a wider repertoire than their predecessors might argue for larger romantic choirs. But in my mind the best size for a boys choir is the 16-24 member average size, and this is proven over and over from the renaissance courts to the choirs of today-regardless of the repertoire. And regarding smaller sized choirs over the years, it seems finances had more of a hand in reducing choir sizes than most artistic considerations. The historical records such as the numbers quoted above are where we obtain the idea of a traditional choir size as being many voices to a part. I hasten to add that those choir numbers of 16-24 are numbers of boys alone- the "Cantorei- Knaben".
Boyd Pehrson wrote (March 29, 2002):
[To Douglas Neslund] Yes a compilation would be quite nice. There is yet another aspect to the Vienna Choir Boys' history- that long 400 year period of ups and downs at the Hof-Musikkapelle. An 1869 book by Ludwig Ritter von Köchel was reprinted auf deutsch in 1976. Von Köchel lists the singers and players paid to perform at the Hof-Musikkapelle. It is interesting to note the increasing numbers of male sopranos employed at the court who were 19-26 years old- falsetto singers and the increasing numbers of castrati! Also employed were an increasing number of "Frauen" and "Sängerinen" - female court chapel singers. The level of "Kapellsingerknaben" varied around an average of 16-18 boys usually, sometimes 8-10 and sometimes 21 boys. That is a good sized choir (adding men singing tenor and bass) for the period of 1543-1867 which the book covers. The musical forces with instruments varied from between 37 and 72 musicians and singers. This is hardly anything close to a "One Voice Per Part" approach by the Hof-Musikkapelle. I think about III volumes, 700 pages each will be needed to scratch the surface of this intriguing choir's history.
Boyd Pehrson wrote (March 29, 2002):
Sorry folks, this message was mysteriously missing in cyberspace for 5 days... thus I re-wrote it and posted it earlier in the week. Now it has re-appeared, back from its sojourn amongst the bits and bytes of the ether. This is a very strange circumstance. If you feel like you are re-reading a familiar post- it is the internet version of deja-vu.