Struggling with its past, Germany’s 1,000-year-old choir admits girls for the 1st time

by | Sep 15, 2022 | Top Stories

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

Lena Mucha for NPR

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Lena Mucha for NPR

REGENSBURG, Germany — For as long as she can remember, 15-year-old Elisabeth Wühl sang with her twin brother, Serafin, in the same choir. “We both started piano lessons when we were 6, and then we joined our church choir, and then the cathedral choir,” said Wühl in an interview last year. But the twins yearned to further their musical studies, which meant leaving their hometown. Serafin applied for one of Europe’s top choirs, the Regensburger Domspatzen in the Bavarian city of Regensburg. Founded in the year 975, the Domspatzen is one of the world’s oldest choirs and performs at the city’s historic Gothic cathedral. But throughout its thousand-year-old history, the Domspatzen — “cathedral sparrows” in German — has only accepted boys, and when Serafin earned a spot in the choir, Elisabeth found herself empty-handed.

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Elisabeth Wühl used to sing with her twin brother but had to attend a different school, Regensburg’s College of Catholic Church Music and Musical Education, because the Regensburger Domspatzen where her brother went was boys only.

Lena Mucha for NPR

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Lena Mucha for NPR

Fortunately for her, she gained admission to a girls’ choir at a nearby Catholic music college. This week, however, the Domspatzen upended a millennium of history and is now allowing girls into its music school and to sing in a girls’ choir.

It may have come too late for Elisabeth, who says she is committed to staying at her current school. But the move is being hailed as a major milestone for an institution that was once feted by Adolf Hitler and later played host to a decades-long scandal of physical and sexual abuse. Among the choirboys of the Domspatzen, the move to admit girls has long divided opinion. “I’m a bit skeptical as to how well the school will function with girls; we’re so used to just being among 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 up to the idea of having female classmates.

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