Houston Baptist University’s Schola Cantorum returned to their musical roots during this summer’s trip to Eisenstadt, Austria. The ensemble, HBU’s premier choir, represented the university at the 40th annual Classical Music Festival as the featured chorus, singing masterpieces by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven in the lands where the pieces were first penned. The group was led by Dr. John Yarrington who also served as the chorus master for the festival.
The excitement was palpable, even at the airport, where many students were embarking on their first trip to Europe. For many, the trip represented an important learning opportunity, studying classical music under distinguished directors like Dr. Don Moses, Dr. Richard Zielinski, and Dr. Yarrington.
Upon arrival, the architecture and culture began bringing inspiration to the festival attendees. Many of the rehearsals took place in the grandiose Schloss Esterházy. This castle is where Franz Joseph Haydn premiered many of his compositions. The Haydn Hall, the castle’s primary performance venue, contains breathtaking murals that tell the story of Israel and the Messiah.
“It’s truly inspiring to sing in these historic venues,” says recent graduate, Jacob Ollison. “It’s an amazing culture, a culture that produced some of the greatest musical geniuses that have ever lived.”
Selected music included Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass and Mozart’sRequiem. Over the course of two weeks, Schola Cantorum performed these works in several venues, including the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt, the Pfarrkirche in Mattersburg, the Esterházy Palace, and high mass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.
These experiences were both musically and spiritually uplifting, pointing the soul upward like the tall, slender features of St. Stephen’s gothic architecture. The classical music proved to be a unique type of worship, connecting students with something timeless and sacred.
“It reminded me of why I pursued music in the first place,” says HBU vocal performance major Annie Elliott. “I could tell there were people in that church who needed to hear what we were singing.”
As a pleasant surprise, the festival was invited to the outdoor theatre, Römersteinbruch St. Margarethen, to attend a performance of Puccini’s operatic masterpiece Tosca. The set of the opera was almost as beautiful as the quarry walls that surrounded the venue. Sitting in the audience, the musicians were reminded how enchanting and refreshing music can be, making many eager to be back on stage.
For Schola Cantorum, the most special of all the festival performances was their own concert in the Bergkirche, the church where Haydn played organ and led worship each week. The impressive concert ended with Eric Whitacre’s setting of e.e. cummings’ text, “i thank You God for most this amazing day,” a sentiment shared by HBU’s singers.
“It was my dream to take the HBU choir to sing a concert in Haydn’s own church there in Eisenstadt,” says Dr. Yarrington. “The wonderful singers in Schola Cantorum made that dream a reality with their superb performance. I love them and am so proud of their work.”
There are many moments that festival- goers might call their favorite. For some, it was using their (admittedly Texan-sounding) German to order a schnitzel-burger. Some will find themselves humming along to old songs well into the coming fall semester, maybe singing the Agnus Dei as they get ready for classes. By now, the singers have shaken off their jet-lag, but memories of beautiful music in the Austrian countryside—those will linger for a long time to come.