The summer vacation had barely begun when twenty-three members of the Jesus College Chapel Choir embarked on a choral tour of Bratislava, Slovakia, and Vienna, Austria. With high hopes, great expectations, and an almost total ignorance of Slovak, our number trekked the distance using an assortment of planes, buses, boats and trains to convene at the predestined hostel in the centre of Bratislava. Notwithstanding the evening swelter we crammed into one of the rooms to attempt the first rehearsal of the tour.
Musical preparations for the visit were already in motion. We had practised a selection of new pieces in the final weeks of Trinity term to complement our familiar repertoire. This consisted largely of Byrd and Tallis, but covered a range of other traditional English choral classics which we had honed over many weeks of Sunday Evensong services. Armed also with shiny new leather folders (green, of course) emblazoned with our college crest, we arrived ready to dazzle both vocally and visually.
The first full day soon dawned. Once again subjected to the magnifying glass of the Slovakian sun, we wandered into the stunning city centre for a quick slurp of something cold before our engagement to sing the Sunday midday Mass at St. Martin’s Cathedral. It is a beautiful Cathedral, its ancient spire dominating the capital’s skyline, overpowered only by the imposing Castle standing alone on its rocky plateau. We were welcomed by an ornate yet proportionate interior, and ascended the spiral staircase to the choir loft in order to clear our throats before our debut performance abroad as an ensemble. It was a great success; we were convinced that all those hours spent learning our various parts had paid off. Thanks are due to the local organists, however, who cued us in amidst the torrent of incomprehensible Slovak.
Half of the day’s appointments completed, and thanking God for the existence of sunscreen, many decided to take advantage of the splendid mixture of a free afternoon, plentiful ice cream and reasonably-priced beverages – predominantly, but not exclusively, beer. Some perhaps enjoyed this combination a little too much, coaxing impromptu recitals on the Castle museum piano.
The next singing occasion swiftly followed, this time at the city’s Franciscan Church. Little did we know this would prove one of the most memorable parts of the tour. Inevitably bedraggled and fatigued from the afternoon’s explorations, we remained stoic in the manner characteristic of Oxford College Choirs (not Exeter) as we stood to sing the Mass in the rustic environs of the oldest surviving religious building in Bratislava. Our efforts were gladly received and we were charmed that almost the entire congregation remained for the concert which immediately followed the service. It was a pleasure to sing to so responsive an audience. This joy, however, paled in significance when compared with the bounteous food, refreshments, wines, juices and cakes to which we were treated by the Franciscan brothers. The supply was vast. Such was the thoughtfulness of our hosts that the individual items had been arranged into smiley faces – some bespectacled, to represent Oxford students. Though sad to leave, we parted feeling truly touched by the kindness we had received as we walked briskly in the cool of the evening to make our dinner reservation. Three delicious courses and a picture-perfect view over the moonlit rooftops of Bratislava brought the full day to a close, leaving just enough time for a final visit to the local bar.
Morning came, and on the third day we rose to bid Bratislava farewell and in its place to salute arguably the musical capital of the world, Vienna. The decision had been taken to reach our exciting final destination by boat; the two cities are separated by a mere seventy-nine kilometre stretch of the Danube. This turned out to be tremendous fun. Those of us who explored the outdoor decks were suitably buffeted as the catamaran sped through the salubrious bliss of the Donau-Auen National Park. Also taken as a prime opportunity for team snaps and photo poses, we very much felt a unity of singers, clad in intimidatingly green choir polo shirts complete with occasionally comedic Latin inscriptions.
We arrived at our destination, and with an afternoon to spare, treated ourselves to some of its fine Viennese delights. The city is rich and fascinating in terms its Habsburg patrimony in addition to its musical and artistic tradition. There was plenty to see, whether the magnificent Hofburg, Schönbrunn and Belvedere Palaces, the latter modelled on the Palace of Versailles, or the vast array of art museums, not to mention Vienna’s impressive musical legacy (home at different times to Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, the Strausses, Mahler, among many others). We reconvened at Stephansplatz, the central square presided over by the city’s immaculately-roofed Cathedral, to find some dinner – for most, a schnitzel of some description. The sun set and we returned to the hostel to recover some sleep, although some of us went via a marvellous little wine bar we found en route.
Day four brought with it our first singing engagement in Vienna, and rather dauntingly, this was one of the lunchtime concerts in the Stephansdom itself. After queuing patiently outside we were ushered in through the south entrance and made ourselves comfortable in the designated seating, taking a few moments to gaze upwards at the colossal and exquisite gothic interior. We soon began our recital, the various clusters of churchgoers, visitors and tourists drifting to our side of the Cathedral to listen. It was an uplifting experience and a genuine privilege to perform at such a venue. That evening we sang once more; we were due to perform a concert at the Peterskirche, only a stone’s throw from the Cathedral. We powered through our long list of pieces, braving the bright lights but savouring the highly decorated ovular nave. Another successful concert later, and having sung fifteen musical items, we dealt with the appetite with another foray into Austrian cuisine.
And then all of a sudden it was our last full day. Since our only appointment was a final concert at the Lutheranstadtkirche, we had another excuse to tour the city. Activities of choice ranged from the Spanische Hofreitschule (Spanish Riding School), the famous centre for classical dressage, to sampling the Viennese coffee-and-cake culture in the traditional fashion. We even found a café once frequented by Trotsky. Given that we were visitors in a musical capacity, loaded with English choral treasures, many of us decided to perfect this cultural exchange by scouting the Mozarthaus, Figarohaus, Haus der Musik, and numerous other attractions and museums dedicated to Vienna’s fabulous musical heritage. All this had to draw to a close as our last concert approached. This process proved troublesome for three of our party, the present writer included, who by getting lost on the city’s tram network achieved the undistinguished feat of taking nearly half an hour to move one metro stop in the wrong direction. We confidently sang our hearts out, irrelevant the modest audience, the repertoire which had initially seemed so formidable now both familiar and empowering.
We thanked our Lutheran hosts, and following a short reception, strolled into the city centre. Unsurprisingly we were tired, hungry and thirsty, and were looking forward to eating at the Italian restaurant at which we were due to dine as a group. Fortunately, one of our number, The Rev. Canon Adrian Daffern, adroitly and perceptibly identified this mass dehydration as we navigated the many squares of the city centre. Gallantly he led our party forth to the one non-alcoholic drinking establishment in sight, determined single-handedly to see to our water, juice and tea-based recovery. For this we were all immensely grateful, none more so than his wife, our dear Chaplain, upon whom he sprung his generous intention to settle the bill before us all. We marched on to enjoy a luscious last supper together. Blemished only by the approaching end of our choral journey, and one or two unwise text message exchanges, we laughed and guffawed in the merry company of our choir friends. As the dark of night and empty wine bottles eventually reminded us of departure the following morning, we gingerly returned to our hostel, our heads and hearts stuffed with happy memories sufficient to last us until the start of Michaelmas term.
The Jesus College Choir Tour 2014 was a resounding success, and with both excitement and anticipation we look forward to the next. Many thanks are due to The Rev. Dr Megan Daffern, our lovely Chaplain and her affable husband, the Rev. Canon Adrian Daffern. Particular gratitude is owed to our Senior and Junior Organ Scholars, James Bowstead and Lottie Orr, without whose hard work such a fantastic visit would surely have remained an impossibility.
You can find out more about the Jesus choir and past tours the choir have been on here.