Vienna Choir Boys In the New Era
For these children, music is another language, a way to become well-rounded, independent, generous and open human beings
The arrivals hall at Vienna International Airport – Schwechat. The normal crowd, the usual slight sense of heightened anticipation. Suddenly a burst of applause and enthusiastic cheering: the Vienna Choir Boys have come through the automatic doors, in uniform, with caps perfectly straight on each head. They have just returned from a tour and are being welcomed back home once again by their parents.
In the boys’ faces is the glow of pleasure that comes with each reunion. But one also sees a calm self-assurance, a quiet pride, combined of course with youthful grins.
It is thus hard to imagine that this is the same institution, and the same world of youth and music that has been subject of allegations by two former choristers of sexual abuse that were reported in the Austrian daily Der Standard at the beginning of March.
These reports have become front page headlines around the world during the last weeks, and left the families of the current choir boys in a very uncomfortable situation. The choir that their sons are part of is an institution that bears little resemblance to the one described in these accusations. I know, as ours is one of those families, and my son Benjamin, one of the Choir Boys.
The Vienna Boys Choir (Wiener Sängerknaben, or WSK) today is, in our experience, a remarkable place of friendship and support, where the boys have the extraordinary opportunity for a fine musical education while they are still young. It is a happy place, and it is also a safe place.
The WSK is more reserved in its self definition, describing itself simply as "a modern institution"; since the mid 1990s, it has been a private, non-profit school, a finely tuned combined effort of 100 boys, their artistic director Gerald Wirth, and a team of choir masters, tutors, chaperones and teachers. And the choristers’ parents, "without whom the Choir could not exist," as can be read on the Choir’s website.
But none of that discounts the importance of what the reports of abuse by the former choir boys of an earlier time. The administration of the Choir responded immediately to the accusations by instating a hotline and an email contact for former choristers wishing to report other cases of abuse, anonymously if wished. An open letter was also sent to former choristers and their parents. It stated:
"We are aware that there may have been cases of abuse in the past. Any kind of abuse, even if it took place in the past, constitutes an injustice that we must and want to face."
In the interim, the number of abuse allegations has risen to eleven. Some of the reported incidents date back more than 50 years (the oldest former chorister who has contacted the institute is over 70 years old), and most are not sexual in nature. They rather describe excessive punishment methods. Some are also related to abuse attempts by fellow choir members, not the adults in charge of the boys.
These cases have been placed the Choir in the uneasy company of similar abuse allegations against priests of the Roman Catholic Church. Gerald Wirth, artistic director at the Vienna Boys Choir, regrets that in some media reports, the two have been mixed.
"One has absolutely nothing to do with the other," he says. Despite its generally believed status as an elite, Austro-centric and perhaps slightly anachronistic institution, in this world of equality between ethnicities and genders, its aim is broader that it might seem
"Every person has music in them," Wirth says. "We all are part of culture; being a chorister is a way to contribute to our culture."
In the last two decades, the doors of the Choir has welcomed boys from around the world. The Choir is "open to all talented boys regardless of background," and its aim is to educate them to become "well-rounded, independent, generous and open human beings."
Music is thus seen as just another language in which to achieve this.
Over the years, choristers from nearby Germany, Switzerland, Hungary or Slovakia have been joined by members from many other places, including the USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore, the Congo, Mexico and Japan. Currently there are choristers from 23 countries other than Austria, and they are considered a real benefit for the choirs. There are, or have been, Catholic, Protestant, Methodist, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist students, as well as children with no religious affiliation.
German as a second language is offered at the school. The elementary school could even be considered one of the "international schools" in Vienna. It is not unusual for half of its girls and boys to speak at least one other language than German at home.
An ongoing project related to this new international (and multi-ethnic) Choir is research being done by Mr. Wirth and his team in World Music. Tour concerts always include pieces from the guest country (in the original language). But Dir. Wirth’s more ambitious project intends to bring new life to unknown songs that might have otherwise become lost in our global world.
The most recent CD produced by the Choir is titled Silk Road - Songs Along the Road and Time and includes songs from China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and India. Research for the CD was done from the Smithsonian to the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and it was supported by Blue Flame Publishing, an independent music label in Stuttgart that represents various musicians from Central Asia. But this actually is part of a long-year tradition; a recording from the1930s included an American Indian song and another from Hawaii.
Not everyone is happy with these developments, however. For example, Alan Rich, a former music critic for The New York Times living in Los Angeles, has lamented that the traditional choral music of Vienna, with its great composers from Isaac to Fux to Schubert, is being left aside by the Choir in favor of something more "marketable."
There are today about 100 choristers. Between the ages of 10 and 14, they are divided into four choirs in groups of 25 boys. The four groups are named after four of the most famous Austrian composers, Bruckner, Mozart, Haydn and Schubert. Each has its own choir director, as well as a female and a male tutor/chaperone. In total, the four choirs give about 300 concerts a year, all over the world, with an audience of nearly half a million people.
The Choir Boys have their own school, housed in a palace in the Augarten in Vienna’s second district, given to the school after WWII. At the time, a shattered city of Vienna did not have the resources to restore the damaged palace; the WSK was one of the few cultural organizations with its enough income to undertake the restoration.
Today, it has a co-ed nursery school and elementary school (1st to 4th grades) which includes intensive music instruction in its curriculum, of course with an emphasis on singing. From the 4th grade on, the boys who will be future choir members live in the Choir’s boarding school. The school currently goes through the 8th grade, but from next year, the high school grades will be added successively, in part so that the boys can finish highschool and continue their musical education after their voices change, and also to allow the education of the girls to come full circle.
Indeed, of course, there are only boys in the Choir, but the girls at the elementary school have the chance to participate in an all-girl choir in the "Chorschule", which is under the patronage of Edita Gruberova and has also done some touring. This program may be broadened in the future.
For the choristers, the school year is divided into trimesters. The boys cover their school material at high speed, fitting it into two trimesters, which is possible because of the extremely small classes and the school’s flexibility. Nine to eleven weeks of the school year are spent on tour.
While in Vienna, too, the boys perform regular concerts, and also sing the Sunday services at the Hofburgkapelle, together with members of the Vienna Philharmonic and the men’s choir of the State Opera.
A lively depiction of life as a Choir Boy can be seen (and read in German) in the volume Wiener Sängerknaben, with text by Tina Breckwoldt and photos by Lukas Beck. Trailing the boys on tour and checking up on a (staged?) pillow fight, the faces are animated and curious. Here a boy is quoted:
"We aren’t learning for school… we are learning about life."
The conductor Ricardo Muti marvels at "these boys arriving full of energy [who] don’t care if somebody is famous." Children expect perfection, he says, or at least clear directions from a conductor. They want "no tricks…They notice immediately if something is not honest."
The school’s teachers are clear about this.
"An unhappy child cannot sing," one told me. These children are the school’s treasure, and both the school and the boys know it.
If a child has a problem there are several directions to turn. Obviously a first choice might be one of the chaperones. Trained counselors, they are responsible for all daily life not related to school or music. And while they are not surrogate parents, especially during tours they do take care of things that are usually a parent’s prerogative, from folding socks to sitting up with boys who are sick.
But the boys can also turn to the director in charge of all the boarders, their teachers, or a psychologist who visits the school every two weeks. On weekends the boys go home, and one evening a week is parent visiting time; often this is a chance to escape the institutional dinner and go have something more interesting like sushi.
For the last decade there has been a parent association at the school. Each elementary school class has two parent representatives, as does each choir. At regular open meetings, problems are discussed and then brought up with the institute’s administration. A quite friendly dialogue has ensued, and parents’ complaints and requests are generally dealt with carefully.
A series of lectures by specialists in various fields has been offered to parents over the last years. These have included talks on voice training, the psychological effects of living in boarding school, and the advantages and disadvantages of all-boy schooling.
Of course a much-raised problem is the food (creating nutritious and delicious food in large quantities seems to be eternally difficult). A few years ago, the boys took part in nutrition study sponsored by the City of Vienna, and the boys were able to give their input about what they wanted to be serve -- although, unfortunately the sushi requests couldn’t be fulfilled!
A more serious question that parents have addressed has been security and precautions against terrorism. Related to this has been how to protect the children from aggression of any sort, be it from adults or mobbing from fellow students. Unrelated to the recent media attention, a course called "Social Learning" is taught at the school, designed to teach the children about respectful and responsible relations between people. This past fall the school began taking part in a project in aggression prevention, offered by the Vienna Bureau for Children and Adolescents (Kinder- und Jugendanwaltschaft Wien). At the beginning of February a related workshop was held for parents, where the real problem of hierarchical mobbing in the mixed-age choirs was carefully discussed.
This is certainly a different world than life as a Choir member in the past, when a boy was "given up" by his parents, who then had little or no contact with their child for long periods. That was a time when there was no internet or cell phones, and when children had no recourse to protest abuse, or even the awareness that it might be their right to do so.
A winter evening before dinnertime at the Vienna Boys Choir: The park around the palace is falling into longer and darker shadows, with its French baroque garden in front, the English garden, perfect for games of cops and robbers, behind. The city around has retreated into a forgotten distance. From the upper windows of the palace come strains of Handel’s Messiah.
Entering the palace, we are in another world, and the music becomes something that really could be described as heavenly. Suddenly the singing ends; silence, a door opens. And then one hears an outburst of exhilarated uproar, the sounds of running feet. A remote-control car comes swerving down the hall. It is dinnertime, playtime, TV time. The evening is free. The boys are happy. The only shouting is a shout of joy.
Cynthia Peck is the cello instructor at the Vienna Boys Choir school and the mother of a former choir member.