The world-famous Vienna Boys Choir got its start in 1498, when Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I required that six boys be picked to sing sacred music in the Hofburg Chapel in the imperial palace in Vienna.
Later, composers Christoph Willibald Gluck, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn wrote music for the masses sung by the choir in the Gothic-style chapel, Schubert also performed in the choir as a boy.
Soon after World War I, the choir for boys ages 10 to 14 was converted to a private nonprofit group, and the boys began performing outside Vienna to cover expenses in their distinctive blue-and-white sailor uniforms, a fashion that was popular at the time.
The Vienna Boys Choir has been globe-trotting ever since, and this year will visit George Mason University to perform a mix of medieval and modern Christmas music along with popular tunes from around the world.
“Christmas in Vienna” concerts are scheduled for Friday evening at the university’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax and Sunday afternoon at its Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas.
The 100-member choir is broken into four groups that sing in their home base of Austria and around the world.
The boys live in a choir-run boarding school in Vienna, and during their first year are on the road for six to seven months, said Choirmaster Manolo Cagnin, who is making his third tour of the United States with the choir.
The second year, the boys spend four months traveling, and in the last two years they stay in Vienna, he said.
The program gives the boys the chance to travel and sing in some of the finest music venues in the world.
“They’re 10-year-olds singing in Carnegie Hall,” he said.
The choir also brings along a complement of instruments, some of which are played by the boys, including violins, trumpets and trombones.
“The audience enjoys when a boy stops singing to play an instrument,” he said. “It’s good for the audience, and the boys multi-task playing an instrument, singing and dancing.”
Once they are 14, the boys can move on to a recently opened choir high school in Vienna where they can continue their music studies to become professional musicians and educators if they choose.
The 10-week U.S. show — which features religious music dating back to the 1300s through popular tunes of the 1900s — changes every year, said Cagnin.
“I think it’s a good mix for an American audience,” he said about the set list.
Two of the American tunes are popular Christmas songs from the 1940s — “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” made famous by Bing Crosby, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” as sung by Judy Garland.
But much of the show features sacred music about Mary and the birth of Christ stretching back to the Middle Ages, according to Cagnin’s program notes.
“Gaudete” (“Rejoice!” in Latin) is one of 74 Finnish religious songs, many of them dating back to the 1300s, that were published in 1582.
Two songs arranged by German composer Michael Pratorius in 1609, are called “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “At the Birth of the Lord.”
Also on the program is non-sacred music associated with Christmas.
“O Tannebaum” (“O Christmas Tree”), based on a German folk song, became associated with decorating evergreen trees in Germany in the early 1800s, while “Jingle Bells,” an American tune inspired by sleigh races in Massachussetts, was first heard in 1857. Also in the program is the upbeat “Feliz Navidad” (“Merry Christmas”) released by Puerto Rican composer José Feliciano in 1970.
In recent years the Vienna Boys Choir has also performed popular secular songs not only from Austria and Germany but also from cultures around the world.
The famous “Blue Danube,” waltz by Johann Strauss, Jr., was set to words in 1889 by Franz von Gernerth and expresses the Austrians’ love of country.
Strauss also wrote in 1858 a fast-moving polka called “Tritsch Tratsch” (“Chitchat”) about gossip mongering in Vienna in response to rumors that he was having an affair with a Russian woman.
A tongue-twisting text was written later by Rosl Hujer, and the choir has performed the piece several times at the traditional New Year’s Day concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Also on the U.S. program is “Thank You for the Music,” a hit recorded in the early 1970s by the Swedish pop group, ABBA.
More recent is the piece “Land of Sweeping Plains,” based on an Australian poem and composed by Australian-Uzbekistan composer Elena Kats-Chernin, who wrote the music for the choir to sing during its 2012 visit to Australia.
“I like the contrast in my program,” said Cagnin about the variety of songs reflected in 27 songs, including two solos to be announced from the stage.
“We sing every type of music for every type of people,” he said. “We’re the only choir in the world to sing every [kind of] music.”