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Members of the Regensburger Domspatzen girls' choir rehears on December 2, 2022 in Regensburg, southern Germany. Image Credit: AFP

Regensburg: Every year in December, the corridors and classrooms of the famous Regensburg cathedral school swell with the sound of choirboys rehearsing traditional Christmas music.

But this year has been different for the ancient Bavarian choir school, home to the world-renowned Regensburger Domspatzen boys’ choir.

In September the school, founded more than 1,000 years ago, broke with tradition and opened its doors to girls for the first time, founding a separate girls’ choir.

The girls have since been rehearsing and will give their first performance at Regensburg cathedral on Sunday.

It’s a big moment for Dorothea Krakowsky, 11, who enrolled in September alongside her twin brother, Johannes.

“I’m excited because it’s the first time we’ve done this and it’s the first time the girls have sung in the cathedral,” she said.

Dorothea, from Munich, had wanted to study at the school ever since she was a little girl.

“It always annoyed me that the boys were favoured. That’s why I think it’s really great that there are girls here too now,” she said.

Founded in 975, the Regensburger Domspatzen - whose name translates as “cathedral sparrows” - is one of the world’s oldest and most famous boys’ choirs.

International stardom

The school created alongside the choir offers pupils a standard German education, but with a heavy focus on music and at least one hour of choir practice every day.

There are a total of 305 students aged between 10 and 19, around two-thirds of whom are boarders.

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Members of the Regensburger Domspatzen girls' choir rehears on December 2, 2022 in Regensburg, southern Germany. Image Credit: AFP

Full tuition and board costs 570 euros ($600) a month and students must pass a gruelling audition before being offered a place.

As well as providing the music for services at Regensburg cathedral, the boys’ choir regularly embarks on prestigious international concert tours.

However, the school has not been spared from the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal and a 2017 report found that more than 500 choirboys suffered sexual or physical abuse at the institute between 1945 and the early 1990s.

The report criticised senior church figures for failing to do enough to prevent the abuse. They include Georg Ratzinger, brother of former pope Benedict, who led the choir from 1964 to 1994.

The scandal “probably” contributed to a decline in applications in 2016 and 2017, according to Christian Heiss, the current conductor of the Regensburger Domspatzen.

Then, having completed extensive renovations in 2020, the school also found itself receiving fewer applications as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The extra capacity meant “the time was ripe... to start a new pathway, a girls’ choir pathway”, Heiss said.

A total of 33 girls joined the school in September, 15 of them in the reception year and the others in older year groups.

The girls’ choir rehearses separately from the boys’ choir but otherwise all lessons are now mixed.

‘Bright, radiant sound’

For 16-year-old Jakob Bauer, in his fifth year at the school, it’s a positive development.

“It’s definitely different,” he said. “At first I thought it was going to be a major change... but now it’s actually pretty normal and quite cool too.”

The girls’ choir will perform on Sunday under their conductor Elena Szuczies, who has been putting them through their paces for the past four months.

The initial plan was for the choir to perform for the first time in 2023 but the girls have exceeded her expectations, Szuczies said.

“We’ll be able to sing a really nice girls’ choir programme, in beautiful polyphony... and it’s great that they’ve developed so quickly,” she said.

There are currently no plans for the school to start a mixed choir, partly because the girls have their own “different sound”, according to Szuczies.

“I personally love this bright, radiant sound,” she said.

To begin with, the girls’ choir will stick to singing at Sunday services in Regensburg cathedral.

But Heiss hopes they will eventually reach the same heights as their male counterparts.

“Boys’ choirs are famous and have a certain reputation musically, but the girls’ choir scene is not yet as established,” he said.

“I think that by offering this pathway we will also help to make the girls’ choir scene better known and raise its profile.”