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Voices of angels

The Vienna Boys' Choir comes to Tacoma

(c) Lukas Beck, /Courtesy Vienna Boys Choir

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In late-15th-century Austria, the use of boys' choirs in Catholic mass was already a longstanding tradition. In 1498, Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I moved his entire court, musicians included, to Vienna. Thus was born the Vienna Chapel Imperial. Maximillian decreed that a choir of two adult bass singers and six boys should be retained to sing at masses, imperial banquets and in concert for occasions of state. Jurij Slatkonja, first residential bishop of Vienna, was named singmeister (singing master) of the so-called Court Choir Boys. Over the ensuing  centuries, that group evolved into the Vienna Boys' Choir, among the most renowned musical organizations in the western world.

Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Mozart composed for the Vienna Boys' Choir, as did Benjamin Britten and Christoph Gluck. Franz Schubert was a member. The Haydn brothers, Joseph and Michael, were in St. Stephen's Cathedral choir, which sang alongside the Vienna Boys' Choir often.

In 1867, the Austrian Empire officially gave way to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and its court orchestra fell on hard times. The Vienna Boys' Choir (Die Wiener Sängerknaben) was founded by that name in 1920, and private donors kept it afloat until World War II. When the Nazis invaded, Father Josef Schnitt, the choir's rector, elected to disband the group rather than allow it to be used in Hitler's propaganda machine. Once the Fuehrer was defeated, it wasn't long before the Vienna Boys' Choir was back in business. Some 7,000 boys applied for a mere hundred positions. The choir has been touring outside its church base since 1926.

In 2010, it became clear that at least eight past members of the choir had been sexually abused by adults in supervisory positions. The organization reacted quickly to these revelations, imposing strict pedagogical standards and entreating any other victims to come forward.

Spurred by scandal and disassociation with the Vienna State Opera, the group has sought to modernize, even secularize its image in recent years. In addition to motets, lieder, children's operas and Austrian classics, the choir's repertoire now includes experimental and world music. It's recorded 13 Christmas albums over 60 years. Choristers now hail from 30 countries. The boys are between 10 and 14 years old, but they train for the choir from the time they're first accepted at 7 or 8. From then on they stay in an official boarding school in Augartenpalais, the former imperial palace.

Choristers are noted for their purity of vocal tone and matching black-and-white sailor suits. Their time in the choir ends when their voices start to change, but they may stay in the boarding school until high-school graduation. Many do; the school has a swimming pool and skating rink, and its students pass summers in the breathtaking Tyrolian Alps. Since 1998 the school has even had female students, though they're not allowed to sing in the choir.

THE VIENNA BOYS' CHOIR, 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma, $19-$69, 253.591.5894

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