Sweet song saved boys from war

Sweet song saved boys from war

Who are these cherubic boys, all dolled up, in this November 1939 photograph with Melbourne's Archbishop Daniel Mannix? What possible connection could they have with Canberra, let alone with Canberra today?

Readers, your columnist is glad you've asked these probing, investigative questions. They give Gang-Gang the chance to answer that about 20 of them are cherubs of the Vienna Mozart Boys Choir and that during their long and poignant 1939 tour of Australasia they performed in Canberra's Albert Hall. Now, in a looming Albert Hall concert, the Canberra Choral Society is going to recreate snippets of famous performances given by famous performers in that matronly venue in its first 25 years. The cherubs get a guernsey in this concert because they performed there in July 1939.

Vienna Mozart Boys Choir with Archbishop Mannix in 1939.

Vienna Mozart Boys Choir with Archbishop Mannix in 1939.Credit:Courtesy Melbourne Diocesan Hist

The Choral Society's Great Performances In The Albert Hall - The First 25 Years (1928-1953) promises to be lots of fun, led as the performers will be by this column's 2012 Canberran of the Year the engaging, inventive, experimental Tobias Cole. As well as the musical attractions there will be some ''non-musical'' items including an appearance, (if it is a good day for a seance, and I've never known a seance fail at the Albert Hall) by a member of a British royal family of long, long ago.

But what was ''poignant'' about the Vienna cherubs tour? And why were they photographed with Archbishop Mannix at his Melbourne residence?

The Vienna boys in 1939 in Adelaide.

The Vienna boys in 1939 in Adelaide.Credit:Courtesy National Museum of Aust

Things became poignant and tragic because during their very long tour of the US, then the Pacific and then Australia (during which they not only sung but played soccer wherever they went) the clouds of war were gathering in Europe. The boys became stranded in Perth when the ship on which they were to return to Austria was requisitioned for war work. Germany had just invaded Poland and Australia had entered the Second World War. Dr Mannix offered for his parishioners to provide foster care in return for the boys forming a choir at St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne. Our photograph was obviously taken at some point after the cherubs were taken under the archbishop's wing and made part of St Patrick's choir.

It was a tragedy for them to be marooned but of course, it was a godsend too, since being here saved their lives, or at least saved them from considerable wretchedness. Back in Europe, and as they came of age, they would have been dragooned into Hitler's army.

In July 1939, while the boys were in town, The Canberra Times' front pages always bristled with dark tidings. The issue of July 7, reporting on page three the previous day's concerts by the cherubs, had the front page headlines ''Poland Considers Next Danzig Step'', ''Russian Pressure on Britain'' and ''Defence - Big Expansion of Forces''.

But the page three story rejoiced: ''Viennese Boys Choir. Perfect Musical Combination. For two hours last night the Albert Hall was filled with the music of sweet-singing birds in the trees, or so it seemed. This choir of small boys, the Vienna Mozart Boys Choir, made the sort of music we are led to believe the more fortunate of us can only expect to hear when when we enter the pearly gates.'' The cherubs had filled the Albert Hall with warblings not only of classics like Mozart's Cradle Song and Tales from the Vienna Woods but also, endearingly, Waltzing Matilda.

Interior of Albert Hall in 1928.

Interior of Albert Hall in 1928.Credit:Courtesy National Library of Aus

Other stars who have graced the Albert Hall and who get a guernsey in the Canberra Choral Society's concert include the lyric soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who might, arguably, be the grandest international star ever to rattle the Hall's rafters. She came here at least twice over the years, as a superstar brought by the ABC. She was here, a spring chicken, in September 1949, when it cost 10/-, 7/6, and 5/- to hear her. The Canberra Times was enchanted and gushed that ''Elisabeth Schwarzkopf brought youthful colour to the drab Albert Hall at the final concert of the A.B.C. Celebrity subscription series on Saturday night. Miss Schwarzkopf confirmed her quickly-won popularity … by an attractive concert manner and in a natural and fresh reading of sentimental songs. A slight cold did not prevent her rewarding an enthusiastic audience with four encores … [during one of which] it was revealed that the artist could whistle as capably as she could sing.''

If the Albert Hall really was ''drab'' in 1949 it is looking quite spruce and sparkling these days. And one of the virtues of an afternoon concert there (as this Sunday's concert is) is that the Hall's terrific windows enable the filling of the funny old venue with Canberra's afternoon light which is probably the best afternoon light in the world.

<i> </i>

That light will illuminate among others, Cole's choir of Turner schoolboys the Turner Trebles, in the roles of the Viennese cherubs who in 1939 seemed to fill the very same venue with the music of sweet-singing birds in the trees.

The Canberra Choral Society's Great Performances In The Albert Hall - The First 25 Years (1928-1953) is at the Albert Hall this Sunday at 3pm. Tickets from Canberra Ticketing.

Most Viewed in National