This month, Bachtrack is busy exploring choral repertoire as well as the impact choral singing has around the world. We’ve been in touch with a number of chorus masters across the globe to find out the state of health of choral singing and the opportunities young singers have to join choirs. We were also interested to find out reasons for the huge popularity of contemporary choral music and who are the composers to listen out for. Johannes Prinz of the Wiener Singverein answers our questions about the choral scene in Vienna.

Johannes Prinz © Studio Wilke
Johannes Prinz
© Studio Wilke

In the UK, choral singing is enjoying a huge renaissance at the moment. What is happening in your country? Can you give us any examples?

As far as I know, the numbers and the quality of the choirs in Austria are both increasing. For young choirs, we have a very big choral event every third year, the “Bundesjugendsingen” with thousands of singers. This is one of the many motors of the Austrian choral scene. In the youth choir section, many Austrian provinces have started their own youth choirs. The high quality of these choirs has been recognized by winning international competitions such as “Cantanima”. There is a rich student choir section too, especially in Vienna. Semi-professional chamber choirs such as the Chorus sine nomine, Wiener Kammerchor, Salzburger Bachchor or Arnold Schönberg Choir are at the top of Austria’s a cappella scene. The latter is the best known internationally. Ensemble singing is more and more popular in Austria. We, the Wiener Singverein, are an oratory choir, which wants to keep its 100% amateur status, but with an intent to sing on a professional level at the same time.

Which styles of choral writing do you think are engaging audiences (and performers) the most?

I do not know, because – at least in Austria - for every style of choral literature, there are as many performers and audiences! On the one hand, we have very avant-garde writers, and on the other hand composers that write rather tonal music. In the Austrian province of Styria, the initiative “Styria cantat” is promoting contemporary a cappella choral music, where various styles of choral composing can be discovered. Unfortunately, the number of composers focussing on choral music is limited. Many of them write rather “traditional”, but using innovative techniques. The lack of a strong output of avant-garde chorus music might be due to the fact that we don’t have professional chamber choirs in Austria.

Which composers do you think have written especially well for your choir?

What does "well" mean? Does it mean less “work” for the chorus or less resistance against something we have never done? This question opens a long discussion. We have given first performances of Wolfgang Sauseng, Otto M. Zykan, Christian Muthspiel, Peter Planyavsky and Wolfram Wagner.
 It is impossible to weigh between styles since they are totally different. Every composition has his own “language”.

What is it about their music which your choir has enjoyed singing?

We try to complement our strong focus on “repertoire” performances by keeping ourselves open-minded and available for new pieces and commissions. As a chorus, we have a strong tradition of premières, dating back to the first performances of Mahler’s Symphony no. 8, Brahms’ German Requiem and Bruckner’s Mass in F minor, into the mid 20th century with Schmidt’s Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln, until very recently, where we had the honour to première Gerd Kühr’s Jetzt wohin? under Fabio Luisi at the Vienna Musikverein.

Wiener Singverein
Wiener Singverein

What is the usual route for singers in your country into choral singing?

In Austria, as probably everywhere else, growing up in a musical environment is essential as a foundation for a successful and rewarding path into choral singing. In school choirs, children usually experience the fun of singing in an ensemble for the first time. Parallel to, and also after school, youth and university choirs, as well as church choirs, are the next steps in shaping young singers. Taking voice lessons is a rather recent development, but often essential in complementing the whole experience.

How far does the education system go into training young voices?

Unfortunately, funding for public schools is shrinking, often directly affecting arts education, especially singing. This is probably a global development. Quite the contrary is required: Austria should invest more into choral education, starting at educating kindergarten teachers and investing in the artistic programmes in schools.

Are there many young people singing in choirs or is it mostly a more mature scene?

Although I cannot give you any numbers, I do have the impression, that there is a vibrant scene of young choral singers in Austria, In our choir, there is a fantastic mix of singers ranging from the ages of 17 to 70.

Who are the other new, exciting choral composers and choirs emerging there?

New choirs emerging in Austria over the past few years include Neue Wiener Stimmen (conductor: Christoph Wigelbeyer), Chor im Hemd (Andreas Salzbrunn), and Neuer Madrigalchor (Andres Garcia). Of the new, exciting composers for choral literature, Manfred Länger, Franz Herzog and Anselm Schaufler deserve special mention.

 

Our thanks to Johannes Prinz of the Wien Singverein for answering our questions and to Dietrich Haubenberger for facilitating the interview.

 

Since its founding in the year 1858, the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien has been one of the leading concert choirs of the world of music. Central works of the choral repertoire were first performed by the choir, including Brahms’ German Requiem, Verdi’s Ave Maria, Bruckner’s Te Deum, Mahler’s Symphony no. 8 and Franz Schmidt’s oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln.

The greatest conductors of the time were partners of the choir, including Johannes Brahms, Franz Schalk, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Karl Böhm and Leonard Bernstein. Herbert von Karajan conducted the choir in about 250 concerts and made numerous audio and video recordings, earning the choir world fame. Today, conductors like Daniel Barenboim, Bertrand de Billy, Pierre Boulez, Riccardo Chailly, Gustavo Dudamel, Vladimir Fedosejev, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Manfred Honeck, Mariss Jansons, Fabio Luisi, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Seiji Ozawa, Georges Prêtre, Sir Simon Rattle, Christian Thielemann and Franz Welser-Möst work with the choir.

The Wiener Singverein regularly gives guest performances at international festivals and has an extensive discography includes a recording of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 under Boulez which won a Grammy Award. 

Johannes Prinz, who studied at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, has shaped the choir’s successful work since 1991. He was appointed professor for choral conducting at the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz (Kunstuniversität Graz) in the year 2000.