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Vienna Choir Boys Still Draw Crowds to Chapel

November 08, 1987|NINO LO BELLO | Lo Bello is an American author and newspaperman living in Vienna.

VIENNA — "Hot ticket" is the name of the game for what is dubbed the Sunday morning "Mass of the Vienna Choir Boys." It has been that way at the Hofburg Chapel for as long as anybody can remember.

Is there a church anywhere, besides St. Peter's in Rome, that on any given Sunday or Catholic holiday will attract throngs of shoulder-to-shoulder tourists to its highest solemn service?

The tiny but beautiful Hofburg Imperial Chapel earns this distinction, for like an electromagnet, it draws persons from all religious persuasions who strive for the limited number of paid seats to take in the cluster of famous little boys singing in dulcet tones for God.

The Hofburg Chapel, in the Swiss Court of the Hofburg Palace grounds in central Vienna, is one of this city's A-1 tourist attractions. Many visitors miss out on this morning event because they just can't get in, try as they might. It is sometimes quipped here that a visitor is more likely to wheedle an audience with the Pope in Rome than he is to get his hands on a ticket for High Mass at the Royal Chapel.

Vatican's Blessing

Vienna has the distinction of having a special dispensation from the Vatican to perform orchestral works by great composers during Mass.

High in the choir loft (formed by five sides of an octagon), these large-scale musical pieces are executed by a powerful lineup of performers that include the famed Vienna Choir Boys, a team of 42 musicians from the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, opera stars, 18 male vocalists from the chorus of the opera and eminent conductors from all over Europe.

Those parts of the Mass sung in Gregorian chant are done at the left side of the altar by a Schola of former Choir Boys whose a cappella singing is considered truly sublime by all connoisseurs.

After Mass lets out at 10:15 a.m., as the 20 or so Vienna Choir Boys come down the wide stone stairway to the open courtyard, they are intercepted and fussed over by admiring fans who are waiting to pose with them for snapshots and to have their Mass programs autographed.

The renowned boy singers in their familiar sailor uniforms exude a charm of their own with their sheepish grins and their unspoiled, almost shy behavior at the fuss being created.

If this sounds like "a good show," it is. The people of Vienna are firm in their conviction that moral man can pay no greater tribute than to offer a Mass composed by one of the giants of music.

The most famous boy singers in the world provide their velvety voices to immortal notes written by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Haydn, et al. The lineup of Hofburg greats also includes Antonio Salieri, the filmatic bad guy of "Amadeus" who was the last Italian to hold the position of Hofburg Court Composer.

Small wonder that a tourist with a bent for music knows that the Imperial Chapel is the place to go for an unforgettable experience. Tickets are obtainable at the chapel's booking office on Friday from 5 to 6 p.m. or through a city ticket office.

Standing Room Only

Reserved seats cost 50 and 120 Austrian schillings. Standing room is free, but it is advised to get there at least one hour before the Mass starting time of 9:15 a.m. for a place. For those seats with blocked vision there are small, closed-circuit TV sets in the church, and for the late-comers who remain in the lobby there is one large TV set raised high.

Although the Gothic chapel, part of the Habsburg Imperial Palace, dates to 1296, it was not until the end of the 15th Century that Emperor Maximilian I helped bring about its fame. He changed it from a purely ecclesiastical institution to a place that would "supply music for the Mass." What was once the royal house's private chamber of worship is an integral part of Vienna's musical culture.

The list of celebrity composers and performers who have been linked with the chapel is endless. Gluck spent most of his creative years in Vienna and wrote music especially for the Imperial Chapel, as did both Mozart and Haydn.

No doubt the most famous prodigy choir boy to sing in the chapel was Franz Schubert who did his regular Sunday morning turn between 1808 and 1813, lending his soprano voice to the proceedings. In 1867 composer Anton Bruckner was appointed organist.

The downfall of the Hapsburg Empire after World War I almost meant the death knell for the Imperial Chapel. But one man stepped forward, Msgr. Joseph Schnitt in 1921, determined to preserve the Mass at the Hofburg Chapel according to rules published in 1498. Schnitt expended all energies and donated his fortune, inherited from his mother, to continue the centuries-old institution.

Choir Boys for Rent

Because of severe cash-flow problems, Msgr. Schnitt rented out his choir boys to sing outside the Hofburg, and that enabled him to re-establish the Wiener Sangerknaben (the Vienna Choir Boys) as a boarding school in 1924.

Another distinction the chapel has is perfect acoustics. Some experts claim that its acoustics may be the finest in the world, but whether true or not, Sunday morning at the Hofburg Chapel provides a banquet to the ear, a feast to the eye and spiritual food for the soul.

As one former choir boy who serves behind the scenes, returning every Sunday as an usher and/or box office assistant, said: "Most of us have no illusions about the large number of people who come here on Sunday. Quite likely, some do not come because of religious zeal and others not even for their love of Mozart's or Schubert's music, but rather because they want to attend 'The Mass of the Vienna Choir Boys.'

"You almost get the impression that in the Hofburg Chapel the Good Lord doesn't mind at all finding Himself playing second fiddle."

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