Your guide to the best musical performances at churches throughout Vienna.
It is obvious, but must be said: A church is not a concert hall. But music has been performed in houses of worship for as long as they have existed. The churches of Vienna are wonderful, huge acoustical spaces, with centuries worth of compositions written just for them, long traditions of musicians playing in them, and golden reverberation times that seem to venture toward infinity.
Austria is predominantly Catholic, which means that masses are celebrated. The Latin text of the liturgy, the five sections of the “Ordinarium” from the Kyrie to the Benedictus, has received musical settings since at least the 9th century. Over centuries, the text and the spaces where it is performed have been an inspiration that few composers in Europe ignored.
To begin at the beginning, the longest continuing tradition of church music in Vienna is at the Hofburgkapelle, the Imperial Chapel, where the Vienna Boys’ Choir has been singing masses for over 500 years. From September to June, mass is sung Sundays at 9:15, not only by the boys but also the men’s choir of the State Opera, accompanied by members of the Vienna Philharmonic. Prayers are sung in unaccompanied Gregorian chant by the Choralschola, whose members are not monks but former choir boys rigorously schooled in the intricate details of plainchant.
Tickets are necessary, and yes, it is a tourist attraction. In my opinion one of the best. But choose your seat yourself: If you buy a ticket from a tour guide before the mass, you will end up in a tight corner with a TV-monitor view. Leave that for real tourists and go online for a ticket in the first row of the Kaiseroratorium. The emperor clearly knew where the best seats in the house were: the box right above the altar.
The oldest church in Vienna is the Ruprechtskirche, founded in 740, according to legend. In its serene, minimalist Romanesque interior, three concerts series are offered during the warmer months: modern music, ancient music and late night concerts. The latter in particular, beginning at 22:00, transport me to another place and time, when a church was truly a sanctuary in a dark world.
Musicians are well trained in Vienna, and that includes organists and choir directors. There is a special major at the University of Music and Performing Arts for church music, and St. Stephan’s Cathedral has its own organ conservatory, unbeknownst to many, on the top floors of a building on the Kärntner Straße.
Mass at the cathedral always includes music, and organ concerts are also regularly held. If you are lucky, it is sometimes possible to catch the cathedral organist practicing during the week. Brave the tourist crowds if you hear him! The cathedral has several organs; the largest is the Monumentalorgel, built 1956–1960. With 125 registers and about 10,000 pipes, it is not only the largest organ in the whole country, but also the biggest instrument in Austria, period.
Vienna also has an oldest organ: the 1642 Wöckherl Orgel, named after its builder in the Franziskanerkirche. Renovated in 2009-10, it has a mesmerizing sound that is completely different from the mammoth up the street.
Karlskirche offers regular “tourist” concerts of Mozart’s Requiem, but here, too, the performances are of the highest quality, with a soloist choir of exceptional singers and the Orchester 1756 playing “original instruments” – instruments like those played, well, in 1756. Their bright and light sound in that marvelous, gigantic baroque church gives the Requiem a transparency and vibrancy that a concert hall setting will never match.
The Jesuitenkirche has one of the best choirs in town and undertakes the most serious Sunday music making, together with members of the Vienna Symphony. The setting for the Mozart, Haydn and Schubert masses is also a baroque church, formerly part of the old university. Its unpresuming façade belies the opulence inside: a huge trompe l’oeil ceiling that seems to rise higher and higher, and rows of huge marble pillars of every conceivable color.
The Peterskirche offers a concert almost daily, including afternoon organ recitals and opera for children. Vienna’s Italian church, the Minoritenkirche, is often rented by choirs and ensembles coming from abroad for special concerts. The Rochuskirche has a Renaissance mass every Sunday at 11:00, sung a cappella by the Ensemble Cinquecento, a professional group of six men. The Ursulinenkirche is part of the University of Music. And there are many more. Amazingly, this list is not exhaustive by any means!
The Lange Nacht der Kirchen (Long Night of Churches) is held in Austria annually, this year on June 9. Regardless of your religious convictions, it presents an ideal chance to wander through the city and experience these incredible spaces. Much of the programming that night – 3,000 hours in Vienna alone – is music. Let it lead you to celestial spheres.
The Faith Musical
Vienna‘s churches offer a choice selection of quartets, choirs and organ music
Masses by Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart
Jun 4, 11, 18, 25, 9:15
“As in heaven, or flute music of the Bach family”
Jun 26 & 27, 19:30
St. Stephan’s Cathedral
Masses in June by Bruckner, Mozart, Michael and Joseph Haydn, Kodály Organ concerts, Jun 4, 22:15 & Jun 28, 20:30
Jun 3, 10, 17, 24, Mozart Requiem, 20:15
Masses by Mozart, von Weber, Puccini, Schubert
Jun 4, 11, 15, 18, 25
Masses by Haydn, Delibes, Schubert
Concerts: Jun 10, 20,
22, 25, 27
Renaissance masses Sundays at 11:00
Regular concerts throughout June