The George Bragg Library

The Pied Piper of Regensburg
By George Bragg
Published in The Choral Journal, May, 1972

 

The Piper is dead, but his legacy lives on in a most wonderful way.

Dr. Theobald Shrems, whom I had met four years ago, was a remarkable man, and a priest of the Catholic faith. Small, rotund, and smiling, he was of enormous energy with a great capacity to love humanity. Cordiality and graciousness were his hallmarks as a host; detail and meticulousness were his attributes as an administrator.

He looked, from his outward appearance, to be a member of the "old school," yet he was far ahead of his time in thinking and in planning. He had developed an electronic system for teaching both solfege (ear-training) and sight reading, such an intricate device that by playing on the keyboard of a small instrument, he could, besides lighting a melodic line, indicate harmonies in chord fashion as well, the several parts to be sung. He was very proud of his invention and he used it to lead his singing school down the paths of tradition into the Age of Science and contemporary thinking – and his children followed him. Three hundred and thirty-three boys and young men followed him as he continued the traditions of the Church and a thousand years of Christianity.

Regensburg is 72 miles north of Munich at a crossroads of early commerce. Set on a plain, surrounded by rolling hills, it is an industrial center, hard hit during World War II.

When a person comes into the center of Regensburg, he enters a Medieval set, a landscape on which dramas have been enacted for centuries. There is in the middle of town, as there was in any center during the Medieval period, first and foremost, a towering church (in this case a Dom, or Cathedral) and clustered around in a close positioned relationship were the homes and businesses, nestled as if for protection from the lawlessness of the early times. There are still the city gates (the walls have gone) and there is still the singular architecture of the later Baroque era, patterned along the same small, narrow streets, which gives the city a charming character of "foreverness."

Ten minutes from this ancient center stands a monument to the past, by practice, and to the future, by direction. It is the School of the Regensburger Domspatzen ("Sparrows of the Cathedral"), a thousand years old at the youngest. (They have records of activity dating from 900 A.D.), and projected to the future as surely as if the Church still held sway over the destiny of contemporary times and tastes.

The Regensburger Domspatzen was established by the Roman Catholic Church in Germany for the purpose of supplying music in the Cathedral, and as a reward for their work, the children were given an education in the Cathedral School. Now, as then, the principal office of the Choir is to provide music for the Cathedral services: 282 times last year.

Where once the Bishop determined the direction of the Choir, now a unique triumvirate, so to speak, three groups of two persons each, representing the Church, the State, and the School decide all matters pertaining to the life of the youngsters, whose education and performance schedule is considered important for all of Germany. The State now heads the entire organization as to its standards, but a Foundation consisting of the three stated groups looks to the interest of the Choir in all matters. The Cathedral schedule is maintained uninterrupted, but tours of Europe, South America, and Japan, as well as television, films and recordings must be considered, also.

The boys range in age from 10 to 20 years. Of the 333 at the School, 200 are boarding students from Bavaria (60 per cent), 100 from other states of Germany (30 per cent), and the remainder from Austria, Switzerland and the town of Regensburg, itself.

For the Dom, there are four groups of boys and men. The complement of men consists of former treble singers, now young basses and tenors, who continue their studies at the gymnasium (high school) in chemistry, history, religion, German, Latin, Greek, mathematics, physics, biology, English, sociology, and literature and, of course, in music. Besides the choirs of the Dom, there are 3 concert choirs: "Palestrina," "Lasso" and "Hassler," which do the traveling, concretizing, recording and television appearances, each consisting of 45 choirboys and 30 tenors and basses.

The students have regular academic lessons from 8-1 each day, Monday through Saturday, including the required 3 lessons of school music a week; ear-training, composer biographies, and sight-reading. The afternoons are spent in preparation of homework, and I private lessons on at least one instrument. They may choose from 13 different instruments taught by 28 part-time teachers. If the student’s academic standing justifies it, he may study even two instruments.

Choir rehearsals are held from 5-7 each evening of the school day. Because of their fine educational background, scholastically and musically, they never rehearse longer, even for great festival occasions.

Just outside the city, the Regensburger group maintains another boarding school for 80 students for grades 3 and 4 (8 and 9 year olds), who come from all parts to prepare for the Domspatzen. To my great surprise one of those youngsters was Edgar Marr from Estelline, South Dakota, U.S.A.!

The Regensburger Domspatzen is a private institution, whose public school teachers are sent from the State of Bavaria. This unique philosophy is based on the idea that a certain teacher-pupil ration exists wherever the students are, so if they are in Regensburg, and in the Choir School, then it is only a matter of the State assigning them a certain number of teachers for the number of pupils enrolled. (Once a teacher has a certificate from the State, he is guaranteed a job for life.) For standard there is no difference in academic requirements between his private school and the other state schools.

Teachers are assigned for 10 years. Most of the teachers at the school are interested in this type of gymnasium, some lived already in Regensburg, and a few are assigned, hoping that they will develop an interest in time, such as the present Headmaster, Josef Hofler, teacher of Greek, Latin and history, who came to the school 4 years ago and is, at present, its best salesman.

What is the result of all this emphasis on music given by the State, the Church and the Foundataion? Well, the results are indicative of the original purpose of this group. Within the past 10 years, 30 per cent have gone into medicine, 40 per cent have become teachers of music in high schools, and the other 30 per cent became chemists, mathematicians, lawyers and businessmen.

I asked why, out of all the schools of Germany, this particular one was aided by the State, and still allowed the status of a private institution, owning its own property, which consists of two huge dormitories and school buildings, connected by a dining hall and chapel, with a separate gymnasium and swimming pool, as well as having a miniature golf course?

The answer came freely and easily from the Director-Kappellmeister Ratzenger, a priest and the successor of Dr. Schrems, "Because we have a special task – a cultural mission in our country which the educators of the State now recognize due to the work of Dr. Schrems."

Here, where a student pays 1,500 marks a year ($375), stands part of the future for this part of Europe. It is a unique idea that already has had excitingly fine results for a nation that considers its culture as important as its business.

Dr. Shrems, the little patient Piper, who began in 1926 to lead the way to the future by showing the importance of the past, is gone, but the idea remains in concrete, glass, and steel – a monument to a thousand years.

On the backside of the School is a small street named "Dr. Theobald Schrems Strasse." It’s new! Some of the City’s Fathers thought of it after the little priest’s death. It’s a small street, but it connects with every major highway throughout Europe.

George Bragg, "The Pied Piper of Regensburg," Choral Journal 12 (May 1972): 2, 5. 1972 by the American Choral Directors Association, P.O. Box 6310, Lawton, Oklahoma 73506-0310. U.S.A. Used by permission.

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