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Who dresses as a sailor, sings like an angel, plays soccer with a passion, travels the world, and becomes a pensioner at 14? Answer: A Vienna Choir Boy.

Vienna Choir Boy. Austria.
Vienna Choir Boy. Austria.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The world-famous singing group dates back to 1498. "Emperor Maximilian I selected six boys to sing at Sunday mass in the Imperial Chapel," explained Herbert Gröger, who was conducting the choir during our visit. (Gerald Wirth is the current artistic director.)

The Hapsburg dynasty supported the boys' choir until 1918, when the empire broke down. Chaplain, Monsignor Schmidt, re-established the group with 11 boys in 1924, and in 1927, changed their name from the Imperial Choir Boys to the Vienna Boys' Choir.

Disney changed name

The name stuck until 1961, when the group made a Walt Disney movie. "Disney registered them as the Vienna Choir Boys," said Gröger. "That's the name they must now legally use in North America. Elsewhere in the world, it's still the Vienna Boys' Choir."

Why do they wear blue and white sailor outfits? Gröger explained: "The Emperor's uniforms were not appropriate in 1924. Neither were church vestments, because the group gave secular concerts as well as religious ones. In the 1920s, sailor suits were fashionable, so that's what they chose."

Concert schedule

The boys travel as much as mariners. There are four choirs, each with 25 members. Two choirs sing in Vienna, Austria, while two travel from Europe and Asia to North America and the South Pacific. Together, they perform 300 concerts each year.

Vienna Boys' Choir. Augarten Palace, Vienna.
Vienna Boys' Choir. Augarten Palace, Vienna.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Because we're self-supporting and accept no state money, we can visit any country, regardless of their political system," explained Gröger. "The money we earn pays for the boys' travel and education, and maintains their home and school, the Augarten Palace, in the former Imperial gardens."

Because the boys tour for three months of the school year, they attend private classes at the Augarten. Twice-yearly examinations ensure that they've reached the same academic levels as students in state-run schools. Combined with rehearsals, performances and travels, their studies leave little time for soccer, a game that they dearly love.

A Vienna Choir Boy's career is very short. Most enter preparatory school when they're eight or nine. At 10, they must pass a test before joining a touring choir. They devote the next four years to singing and schooling. On weekends and holidays, they visit their families.

Vienna Choir Boys performance
Vienna Choir Boys performance
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"When the boys' voices change at the age of 13 or 14, they must leave the choir," stated Gröger. "About 20 per cent move on to music careers. The whole State Opera is infiltrated with former Vienna Choir Boys!"

Others progress to technical schools and universities. Although they may eventually become teachers or lawyers, they all retain their connection with music, even if it's simply as concert-goers.

"Boys who live far from an appropriate school, often remain with us," added Gröger. "They live in old pensioners' homes, right beside the palace, although they attend state schools. If they've sung in the choir for four or five years, they can stay with us for free. We currently have 10 old pensioners."

MuTh Concert Hall

The Vienna Choir Boys' Concert Hall is named MuTh (from the word "music" combined with the word "theater"). The choir boys use it for rehearsals, concerts, children's operas, classes and workshops.

Where is MuTh? Located in the Second District of Vienna, it incorporates the former Porters' Lodge and part of the Augarten Park Wall. The main entrance to the Konzertsaal der Wiener Sangerknaben is on Obere Augartenstrasse.

For nine months of the year, when the MuTh is not needed by the choir boys, the facilities and 400-seat concert hall is used by the Vienna Children’s Theater and rented by other theater groups, musicians and corporations. The performing arts center is also used to educate young people about music and theater.

Aerial view of the MuTh concert hall in the Augarten, Vienna.
Aerial view of the MuTh concert hall in the Augarten, Vienna.
Photo by Heinz Zeggl

Before the opening of MuTh, the choir boys performed at the Hofburgkapelle (Imperial Palace Chapel) and the Konzerthaus in Vienna. They continue to sing at the Imperial Chapel Sunday services between September and late June.

Performance by Vienna Choir Boys

As we finished the interview, the boys arrived for their concert and gathered on both sides of the piano. Fixing their eyes on Gröger, they raised their clear-as-crystal voices in harmony.

"Their repertoire includes madrigals, classic and contemporary pieces, as well as operas," said Gröger, during an intermission. "Performances are about two hours long and are constantly changing, so they never become routine."

There is one frequently-performed exception: The Blue Danube, sometimes called the second Austrian national anthem. With voices tuned as finely as a Stradivarius, the boys sang the famous Strauss waltz. Their exquisite rendition brought tears to our eyes and sent chills up our spine — just as it has undoubtedly done to audiences around the world throughout their 500-year-old history.


Vienna Tourist Board: www.vienna.info

More things to see and do in Austria:

Graz Austria Tour

Durnstein and Weissenkirchen in Austria's Wachau Wine Region

Melk Abbey Driving Trip From Vienna

Innsbruck, Heiligenblut and Wattens Crystal World Tour

Touring Salzburg, Hellbrunn, Salzkammergut and Hallstatt