By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
Along with the men of the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Choir Boys (Wiener Sangerknaben), as a constituent part of the Hofmusikkappelle, belongs to the oldest existing Viennese music institution. The Hofkappelle (Palace Choir) is the chief institution for sacred music in the city, dedicated to the preservation of the great Viennese choral music such as the classic and romantic Masses of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner. In this capacity they serve under the jurisdiction of the Austrian Federal Minister of Education and Art.
The Vienna Choir Boys itself is a private institution in which selected boys to the number of 150 between the ages of 10 and 14 train in a boarding school located since 1948 in the Sixteenth-Century Augarten Palais. The boys are organized into four choirs, each of which tours for about three months annually, most frequently in Germany and the United States.
The Vienna Choir Boys largely supports itself through tour fees, participation in the State Opera (Staatsoper) recordings and radio/ television appearances.
This evening's program illustrates their wide musical repertoire, supplemented with their short comic opera presentations in costume and their folksongs.
Harkening to the 400th birthday celebration of the great Heinrich Schütz (b. 1585), the choir presents Jubilate Deo (in chords), a motet found in Part I of his Symphoniae Sacrae (opus 6). Schütz published these Latin motets in 1629 toward the close of a year's sojourn in Venice (1628- 29). He described them; the result of his encounter with the techniques and style of the later Venetian composers, as incorporating "fresh devices to tickle the ears of today." The text is derived from Psalm 150/4 and Psalm 87/4:"Praise God with organ and lyre, with drums and chorus. Sing out and rejoice; sing psalms skillfully, Alleluia."
While still resident in Rome, Victoria in 1585 published his famed Office for Holy Week, a collection of Responsories, Lamentations, and two Passions. The Responsories were scriptural texts affording opportunity for meditation and reflection after each of the nine Lessons for Matins in that special night service called "Tenebrae" for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Tenebrae factae sunt follows the fifth Lesson in Good Friday's Matins. Its music illustrates the deep poignancy and mystical fervor of this great priest-composer. "Darkness fell while they crucified Jesus. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?' And bowing his head he sent forth his spirit, crying again in a loud voice, 'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.'" The Responsory was scored originally for treble choir.
The great English Baroque composer Henry Purcell produced a number of occasional Odes celebrating members of the English royal family. Come, Come, Ye Sons of Art commemorated the birthday of Queen Mary II in 1694. Much of the music in these secular-type cantatas, well-illustrated in this evening's Ode, exhibits Purcell's simple, extroverted and highly jubilant style. This Ode comprises seven movements scored originally for various combinations of voice accompanied by oboe, trumpet and drum. Come, Come, Ye Sons of Art is the opening festive movement of the Ode.
On December 2, 1820 Franz Schubert produced his Opus 132, a setting of the Twenty-Third Psalm in a German translation by Moses Mendelssohn. He composed it for the women of Anna Froelich's chorus at the Vienna Conservatory. Leopold von Sonnleithner programmed it in a concert on August 30, 1821. It was later performed by the students in the Gesellshaft der Musikfreunde in 1826 and in 1828. It well illustrated Schubert's exquisite and inimitable romantic vein: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...”
Schubert's Nachthelle on a poem of his friend Johann Seidl was set in September, 1826. It was not published until 1839, eleven years after his death, and then as his Opus 134. It is originally scored for four-part male chorus, piano accompaniment, and with what contemporaries described as a "damnably high" tenor solo. The words are a highly romantic expression of the splendor of the night filling one's soul with a treasured sense of joy and freedom.
Two years after he finally settled in Vienna, Johannes Brahms brought together in 1864 what is often considered his Opus 26, Abschiedslied (Farewell Song). These unaccompanied choral works for four voices, of which lch fahr dahin is 119 and Wach auf, mein herzens Schone, 1116, were first published in 1926-27. Abschiedslied may mark the musical expression of his departure in 1862 from his native city of Hamburg.
During his lifetime Bela Bartok rose to be one of the greatest collectors of authentic folksong. Not only did he scour his native Hungary for these, but travelled through Slovakia, Romania, Transylvania, and even North Africa in pursuit of folk music. Subsequently he utilized these songs in arrangements for voice and piano, accompanied and unaccompanied choruses, and in piano and orchestral transcriptions. As published they were often initially furnished with German and English translations of the original language. Moreover, Bartok arranged many of these same songs for varying combinations of voices. Along with his compatriots Kodaly and Vaughan Williams he must be counted among the great composers who researched and published the music of his native land. Tanzlied (Dance Song) and Lied der Faulpelze (Song of the Rotten Pelt) may be one of those published as Four Slovak Folksongs or Twenty Hungarian Folksongs. The German titles make attribution uncertain.