Struggling with its past, 1,000-year-old German choir admits girls for 1st time: NPR

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

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

Lena Mucha for NPR

REGENSBURG, Germany — For as long as she can remember, 15-year-old Elisabeth Wühl has sung with her twin brother, Serafin, in the same choir.

“We both started piano lessons when we were 6, then we joined our church choir, then the cathedral choir,” Wühl said in an interview last year.

But the twins longed to continue their musical studies, which meant leaving their hometown.

Serafin applied for one of the best choirs in Europe, the Regensburger Domspatzen in the Bavarian city of Regensburg.

Founded in 975, the Domspatzen is one of the oldest choirs in the world and performs in the city’s historic Gothic cathedral.

But throughout its thousand-year-old history, the Domspatzen – “cathedral sparrows” in German – only accepted boys, and when Serafin won a place in the choir, Elisabeth found herself empty-handed.

Elisabeth Wühl used to sing with her twin brother but had to attend another school, the College for Catholic Music and Music Education in Regensburg, because the Regensburger Domspatzen where her brother went was for boys only.

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Elisabeth Wühl used to sing with her twin brother but had to attend another school, the College for Catholic Music and Music Education in Regensburg, because the Regensburger Domspatzen where her brother went was for boys only.

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Luckily for her, she was accepted into a girls’ choir at a nearby Catholic music college.

This week, however, the Domspatzen has turned a millennium of history on its head and is now allowing girls to enter its music school and sing in a girls’ choir.

It may have come too late for Elisabeth, who says she is determined to stay at her current school. But the move is being hailed as a major milestone for an institution once celebrated by Adolf Hitler and later host to a decades-long physical and sexual abuse scandal.

Among the Domspatzen altar boys, the decision to admit the girls has long divided opinion.

“I’m a little skeptical about how the school will work with the girls; we’re so used to being just among the boys,” said Johannes Ferber, 13, as he relaxed with classmates on the choir’s boarding school campus last year.

But Maximilian Steiner, 15, says he has warmed to the idea of ​​having female classmates.

Maximilian Steiner practices his trumpet in his room at the choir boarding school on July 15, 2021. He joined the school from the first year.

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Maximilian Steiner practices his trumpet in his room at the choir boarding school on July 15, 2021. He joined the school from the first year.

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“It’s long overdue,” he said. “We are way behind on this issue. Girls should have the same educational opportunities as us boys. My sister couldn’t come to this school and now it’s too late for her.”

The new girls from Domspatzen now go to school with the boys but have a separate choir led by a female conductor.

“The decision to allow the girls in was part of a longer and larger decision-making process about the future of the choir,” said Christian Heiss, the boys’ choir music director.

“We’ve made a lot of changes here over the last few years,” he said. “We rebuilt the school, modernized it, made it more pleasant. So we asked ourselves: how do we want to use these new facilities? We came to the conclusion to allow girls to enjoy them like boys.”

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

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

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Heiss says it’s a “revolutionary step” in the choir’s millennial history – a history that has often reflected some of Germany’s darkest chapters.

In 1938, the Domspatzen performed at one of the Nazi Party’s annual gatherings in Nuremberg. Hitler was a fan of the choir, a friend of its then director, and he gave it regular donations in the years to come.

“It was Hitler who made the choir what it is today,” said Magnus Meier, who was an altar boy with the Domspatzen in the 1980s.

“Instead of just singing Mass as before, Hitler asked the choir to sing secular music and sent them on tour. This is how the choir began to tour and gain international fame.”

Hitler used the choir as a propaganda tool for Nazi Germany, performing it throughout Europe as World War II approached.

The tour ended when the war ended, but it was replaced by another dark period for the choir: decades of systematic physical and sexual abuse.

As a young boy, Meier was one of hundreds of victims.

“The headmaster of the school was one of the worst then,” Meier said of then headmaster Johann Meier (no relation). “He had been an officer in World War II, and his methods of punishment were similar to those the Nazis applied in the camps. I truly believe that if murder were not a crime, he would have killed us.”

In 2017, an investigation commissioned by the Catholic Diocese of Regensburg revealed that Magnus Meier was one of 547 altar boys in Domspatzen who were physically and sexually abused by priests and teachers from 1945 to 2015.

The 440-page report describes teachers at the Domspatzen boarding school slapping boys so hard that marks could be seen the next day, and whipping them with wooden sticks and violin bows.

The choir was led by Georg Ratzinger – older brother of retired Pope Benedict XVI – from 1964 to 1994, when most of the abuse occurred. Ratzinger denied knowledge, and by the time the abuses came to light, most of the perpetrators were dead. (Ratzinger died in 2020.)

Georg Ratzinger at his home in Regensburg on April 19, 2005.

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Georg Ratzinger at his home in Regensburg on April 19, 2005.

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The church then compensated victims like Meier with payments of between $20,000 and $30,000.

“As kids, we didn’t know any better,” Meier said through tears. “We thought the beatings and abuse were normal. It wasn’t until later that I realized none of this was normal and that’s when I started dealing with the trauma.”

Meier, now 50, still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder. He says the school and the church can never apologize enough for what they have done to generations of young people like him.

Still, he says Domspatzen’s decision to open up to girls is a good decision, even if, in his mind, it smacks of “rebranding”.

But choir director Heiss says the decision to admit the girls had nothing to do with the abuse scandal.

He insists the choir will never sweep its past under the rug, but the abuse happened in the last century, the leadership of the choir changed and the church investigated thoroughly, listening to the victims.

“And that’s now our job: to make sure that never happens again. It’s a very sensitive issue that we take very seriously.”

The Regensburger Domspatzen choir sings during a concert in Lappersdorf, Germany, July 15, 2021.

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The Regensburger Domspatzen choir sings during a concert in Lappersdorf, Germany, July 15, 2021.

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At a Domspatzen concert at a cultural center in the town of Lappersdorf last year, the choir sang to sold-out crowds.

One of the people present in the audience, Sabine Schick, said she was delighted for the future of the choir.

“It’s special and the choir means a lot to this region,” Schick said. “The abuse scandal has been appalling and it’s a shame that such things have happened to such a great choir with such amazing musicians, but I try to focus on the positive.”
Schick said now is the time to get girls singing along with this millennial choir.

“I wouldn’t want to throw away all of our old traditions, but it’s time to venture down a new path,” she said.

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

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