Germany’s 1,000-year-old choir struggles to welcome girls for the first time: NPR


Regensburg Cathedral, the place the Regensburger Domspatzen choir performs, on July 14, 2021.

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Regensburg Cathedral, the place the Regensburger Domspatzen choir performs, on July 14, 2021.

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REGENSBURG, GERMANY – For so long as she will keep in mind, 15-year-old Elisabeth Wall sang together with her twin brother, Seraphine, in the identical choir.

“We began piano classes after we have been six, after which joined our church choir, after which the cathedral choir,” Wall mentioned in an interview final 12 months.

However the twins longed to proceed their musical research, which meant leaving their hometown.

Seraphine utilized for one in every of Europe’s greatest choirs, the Regensburger Domspatzen within the Bavarian metropolis of Regensburg.

Based in 975, Domspatzen is without doubt one of the oldest choirs on this planet and performs within the metropolis’s historic Gothic cathedral.

However all through its thousand-year historical past, the Domspatzen household – “cathedral sparrows” in German – accepted solely boys, and when Seraphine obtained a spot within the choir, Elizabeth discovered herself empty-handed.


Elizabeth Wall used to sing together with her twin brother however needed to attend a distinct college, the Regensburg Faculty of Ecclesiastical Music and Music Training, as a result of Regensburger Domspatzen the place her brother went was solely boys.

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Elizabeth Wall used to sing together with her twin brother however needed to attend a distinct college, the Regensburg Faculty of Ecclesiastical Music and Music Training, as a result of Regensburger Domspatzen the place her brother went was solely boys.

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Thankfully for her, she was accepted right into a women’ choir on the close by Catholic Faculty of Music.

However this week, Domspatzen has upended a thousand years of historical past and is now permitting women to enter their music college and sing within the women’ choir.

It could be too late for Elizabeth, who says she is dedicated to staying at her present college. However the transfer was hailed as a serious milestone for an establishment that Adolf Hitler as soon as celebrated and later hosted a decades-old scandal of bodily and sexual abuse.

Among the many choral ensembles of Domspatzen, opinion has lengthy been divided on the transfer to just accept women.

“I am just a little skeptical about how properly the varsity works with women; we’re used to being amongst boys solely,” mentioned Johannes Verber, 13, whereas enjoyable together with his classmates on the choir’s boarding college campus final 12 months.

However Maximilian Steiner, 15, says he is warmed to the thought of ​​having feminine classmates.


Maximilian Steiner performs his trumpet in his room at a choir boarding college on July 15, 2021. He attended college beginning in first grade.

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Maximilian Steiner performs his trumpet in his room at a choir boarding college on July 15, 2021. He attended college beginning in first grade.

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“It has been a very long time coming,” he mentioned. “We’re too late on this challenge. Ladies ought to have the identical alternatives we’ve got as boys in relation to schooling. My sister could not come to this college and now it is too late for her.”

The brand new women at Domspatzen now go to high school with the boys however have a separate choir led by a conductor.

“The choice to let the ladies in was a part of a protracted and broader decision-making course of concerning the choir’s future,” mentioned Christian Hess, the boys’ choir’s musical director.

“We have made a whole lot of modifications right here in recent times,” he mentioned. “We reconstructed the varsity, modernized it and made it extra lovely. Then we requested: How will we need to use these new services? We got here to the conclusion to let the ladies use them because the boys do.”


Christian Hess, musical director of the boys’ choir, at Regensburger Domspatzen on July 15, 2021. He joined the varsity in 2019.

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Christian Hess, musical director of the boys’ choir, at Regensburger Domspatzen on July 15, 2021. He joined the varsity in 2019.

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It is a “revolutionary step” within the choral’s thousand-year historical past – a historical past that always displays a few of Germany’s darkest seasons, Hess says.

In 1938, Domspatzen carried out at one of many annual Nuremberg rallies of the Nazi Celebration. Hitler admired the choir, was a pal of its then director, and launched it Common donations within the coming years.

“It was Hitler who made the choir what it’s right now,” mentioned Magnus Meyer, who was a choir member with Domspatzen within the Nineteen Eighties.

“As a substitute of simply singing group as Hitler used to, Hitler sang the secular choir and despatched them on tour. That is how the choir started to tour and acquire worldwide fame.”

Hitler used the choir as a propaganda software for Nazi Germany, and carried out it all through Europe within the run-up to World Conflict II.

The tour ended on the finish of the conflict, however was changed by one other darkish interval for the choir: many years of systematic bodily and sexual abuse.

As a younger boy, Meyer was one in every of lots of of victims.

“The principal at the moment was one of many worst,” Meyer mentioned of then-principal Johann Meyer (no relation). “He was a World Conflict II officer, and his strategies of punishment have been just like these of the Nazis within the camps. I actually consider that if homicide had not been against the law, he would have killed us.”

In 2017, an investigation commissioned by the Catholic Diocese of Regensburg discovered that Magnus Meyer was one in every of 547 Domspatzen choirmasters who have been bodily and sexually abused by clergymen and lecturers from 1945 to 2015.

The 440-page report describes lecturers at Domspatzen boarding college slapping the boys within the faces so arduous that indicators could be seen the following day, beating them with picket sticks and violin bows.

The choir was performed by Georg Ratzinger – the elder brother of retiring Pope Benedict XVI – from 1964 to 1994, when most abuses occurred. Ratzinger denied data of the matter, and by the point the abuse surfaced, many of the perpetrators have been lifeless. (Ratzinger died in 2020).


George Ratzinger at his house in Regensburg on April 19, 2005.

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George Ratzinger at his house in Regensburg on April 19, 2005.

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The church later compensated victims like Mayer with funds starting from $20,000 to $30,000.

“As youngsters, we did not know something higher,” Meyer mentioned, sobbing. “We thought beating and abuse have been regular. It wasn’t till later that I spotted any of this was regular, which is after I began coping with the trauma.”

Meyer, 50, nonetheless suffers from PTSD and borderline persona dysfunction. He says the varsity and church won’t ever have the ability to apologize sufficient for what they’ve carried out to generations of younger folks like him.

Nonetheless, he says Domspatzen’s determination to speak in confidence to women is an efficient one, albeit, in his thoughts, it smells of “rebranding.”

However choir director Hess says the choice to just accept the ladies has nothing to do with the abuse scandal.

He insists the choir won’t ever sweep its previous beneath the rug, however the abuse occurred within the final century, the choir’s management modified, the church led a radical investigation, and the victims have been heard.

“And that is our job now: to ensure that would not occur once more. It is a very delicate challenge that we take very critically.”


The Regensburger Domspatzen Choir performs in live performance in Lappersdorf, Germany, on July 15, 2021.

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The Regensburger Domspatzen Choir performs in live performance in Lappersdorf, Germany, on July 15, 2021.

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At a Domspatzen live performance at a cultural middle within the city of Lappersdorf final 12 months, the choir sang in a full home.

Sabine Schick, one of many attendees, mentioned she was happy with the choir’s future.

“It is particular and the refrain means so much to this space,” Shake mentioned. “The abuse scandal was horrible and it is unlucky that such issues occur to a very good refrain with such nice musicians, however I attempt to concentrate on the positivity.”
Now’s the time for the ladies to sing together with this thousand-year-old choir, Shake mentioned.

“I do not need to throw away all our outdated traditions,” she mentioned, “however it is time to enterprise on a brand new path.”

Esme Nicholson contributed to this story from Berlin, and Austin Davis from Regensburg contributed.